Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a some-time dog whisperer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks, most recently 'Raptures and Captures', published by Culture Matters, the last in a trilogy of works with collage artist Steev Burgess. 

An interview with Julia Bell
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 09:47

An interview with Julia Bell

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Julia Bell

Background

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is the Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing. Her recent creative work includes poetry, lyric essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. She is the author of three novels with Macmillan in the UK (Simon & Schuster in the US) and is co-editor of the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan) updated and re-issued in 2019.

She is interested in the intersection between the personal and the political, and believes that writing well takes courage, patience, attention and commitment. Radical Attention is Julia's latest book and is available from Peninsula Press here

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FL: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your new book, Radical Attention. This essay is already garnering praise for its chilling and clear-sighted account of our collective internet addiction, and how this addiction is manipulated. The book makes an eloquent case for a sustained and tender regard in which to hold the world and each other, which stands counter to the instrumental indifference of our transactional economy. I wonder if you could start off by talking a little bit about the idea of 'radical attention', particularly in relation to Shoshana Zuboff's notion of 'radical indifference' as it applies to social media monopolies like Facebook and Twitter?

JB: It’s become quite clear to me that the interests of late-stage capitalism have diverged quite sharply and catastrophically from the interests of most humans and the planet. One of the most evident examples of this can be seen in the way that the social media monopolies have built their empires on the attention and the behavioural data of its users. Human attention and behaviour is now the product being sold. To begin with, I think, we used their platforms in good faith, as a vehicle for socialising. But over the years these platforms have also begun to socialise us. They trap us in echo chambers of the information the companies perceive is most likely to appeal to us, and adverts which have been microtargeted by companies who pay to have access to that information. We don’t choose what we see. The algorithms are built in such a way as to feed you more of what you want, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a picture of your cat or a suicide note – as long as you’re engaging it will keep feeding you more of the same.

In such a context I wonder how much control we actually have over what we actually look at and think about. If you spend three or four hours a day on your smartphone what are you actually doing with your time, and by extension your life? Was that leisure time or did it make you anxious, outraged, afraid? I suppose I’m taking an autoethnographic approach to consider how these changes have affected me and my friends, but also the social and political environment around me. To me Radical Attention was my attempt to step outside the Attention Industrial Complex to see what is actually going on. I want to encourage others to do the same.  

FL: One of the things that occurred to me while reading was that the term 'machine' stands equally for the technologies we use and the systems that drive and deploy them. When you write about dazedly losing yourself, “zombified by the machine”, I find myself interpreting this in a couple of ways. Firstly the machine is the literal device, the screen that mediates our experience of the world and captures our attention. Secondly, it is also capitalism itself, the corporations and institutions that vie for this attention in order to keep us engaged, enraged, consuming and competing. As a person who experiences a great deal of unease about the enmeshment of social media and late-stage capitalism, I wonder if you see them as in any way separable? Or is exploitation itself part of the hardware?

JB: Steve Jobs said that technology should be a ‘bicycle for the mind’ and as an early adopter in the 90s I was thrilled by the potential of technology and the web – the possibilities of making publishing easier and cheaper for example, or breaking the monopolies of the music companies that kept such tight control over the copyright of artists while creaming off huge profits, etc. I’m not sorry that we have much easier ways of disseminating knowledge, music, film, writing, art – for people to have access to the means of production. It has improved diversity. It means so many more people can have a voice. And I think there is huge potential in tech to be put to use solving some of the pressing issues around the climate and so on. Smartphones are amazing inventions in many ways.

So, I’m not anti-technology at all, but I am anti the current enmeshment of tech companies with an increasingly dark version of libertarian capitalism. The way the companies have grown into these disruptive, monopolistic behemoths with little or no regulation and who are now making eye-watering amounts of profit – especially the social media monopolies which pretend to be a reflection of society, when actually they are increasingly a means of socialising it into various new forms. Also, this has happened in a place where we have no jurisdiction, and yet this technology has an increasingly huge effect on the quality of my life. I remember thinking in the 90s when I first started using the net – What will all this be for? It seems the people with the capacity and the imaginations have made something very big and revolutionary out if it, but it has become way too centralised and ordinary people have become increasingly locked out of the conversation. There are us – the users – and then a very small elite who are the coders, and we have to live in the world they have built.

FL: I ask because the passages in Radical Attention about Silicon Valley cynicism really struck a chord with me. Nir Eyal writing that noxious book on how to manipulate others through technology, then later publishing a self-help manual for those wishing to take back control of their hijacked attention felt particularly chilling. I recalled that at the start of the year I was at an arts and performance event in London where one of the participants had designed what was essentially a baffle for Alexa: a kind of cyberpunk face-mask that anonymised and distorted speech. I made myself wildly unpopular by suggesting that a simpler solution would be not to buy Alexa in the first place. I've always felt like capitalism's shtick is to break our legs then sell us crutches, so I was mentally cheering to see this feeling so incisively evidenced and articulated in your essay. In particular, you describe the growth of “mindfulness” and self-soothing industries originating from Silicon Valley as the flip side of endemic distraction.  I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that, and share any thoughts you might have on the sudden explosion in popularity of online and app-based pseudo-therapies?

JB: I agree about Alexa – mine is unplugged in the shed after it started talking to us in the middle of the night. It was a gift I might add, which very quickly became a sort of faded novelty. But another example of the way in which tech becomes ubiquitous and then starts to spy on us. I think in time goods and internet services will need some kind of mark of quality, enforceable by law, which promises to protect your privacy. 

The pseudo-therapies issue also interests me – it’s worth noting that the the QAnon conspiracy spread through wellness communities. People feel very uneasy at the moment for quite obvious reasons and they want definitive answers for their unease. There is a lot of snake oil being peddled on the internet and again, I don’t think the companies are interested in whether your therapy works or not, as long as you're prepared to pay for advertising.

FL: I'm highly conscious that when I write critically about social media and digital technology that those platforms are often the sites of first reception for that very criticism, and that there's always a danger in coming across as hypocritical or judgemental. I think one of the most refreshing things about Radical Attention is its deep acknowledgement of your own implicatedness, a reckoning with which would seem to be the absolute prerequisite for any kind of meaningful resistance. Was this reckoning difficult for you?

JB: Yes, and it still is. I feel like, without a major publisher or what is left of UK mainstream media behind me, being able to disseminate this book on social media and be part of the conversation is important. I think social media is another arena where we are asked to perform versions of ourselves for profit. Late capitalism atomises us into individual units of consumption, parsed still further by all the data they have on us. So everyone is scrambling for the latest ‘hot take;’ there is a sense of a frenzy, sometimes, of people shilling their ideas. I am of course one of them. I will share this interview on Twitter and FB. What else can I do?

The flip side of this is then controlling my own social media use, and so on. Just being aware of using it, rather than letting it use me. I think one of the key issues is around feeling. If I’m especially tired or vulnerable it’s very easy slip into things like ‘hatescrolling’ or ‘doomscrolling’ where my feelings are suddenly amplified by seeing so many stories about the same thing. It’s always worth thinking – how does this make me feel? If half an hour on Twitter leaves you exhausted and despairing rather than informed, it’s surely worth asking what the hell it’s good for. Whenever I take extended breaks from social media it’s interesting how much less anxious I feel.

FL: Related to my previous question, do you feel that we are so saturated, even at the level of language, by the logics and rhetoric of capitalism, that some form of complicity is inevitable? And if that's the case, how do we meaningfully manifest any kind of resistance? For example, is going off-grid a useful strategy? Are the technologies we use and the ways we use them even susceptible to subversion?

JB: Of course I could go without it altogether, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that. People who don’t connect in this way do miss out ,I think. It’s important for resistance too. There are some interesting versions of subversion – the K-Pop Tik-Tok fans who bought tickets to the Trump rally and never showed for example, or certain flashmobs. BLM emerged from the internet: the video of George Floyd spread at speed through the networks, sparking a huge moment of resistance. The problem is really that resistance often only works at scale, when everyone joins in. The pressure on the government to change over free meals in the holidays is an interesting example of internet pressure paying off. What happens online becomes news and forces change in real life. So the desire to cancel certain speakers – I hesitate to call it ‘culture’ – comes from this impulse I think to see results of online political pressure played out in real life.

FL: Sorry, that was quite a lot in one go, but these thoughts have been very much on my mind since lockdown. In Radical Attention you write about lockdown as moment of illumination, one that demonstrated how interconnected we really are, and how much we need one another. I wonder to what extent you feel that it also exposed the paradox at the heart of our social media compulsions: that the very technology we use to escape our isolation is, in many subtle ways, damaging our  ability to relate to one another in anything other than transactional or oppositional terms?

JB: The problem with ‘the machine’ (and you rightly point out I use the term interchangeably at times for the system as well as the smartphone and the software which runs on it) is that it runs on binaries – zeroes and ones – whereas humans are fractional. Humans live in grey areas which are not black and white.

Social media forces us to create and then perform versions of ourselves for profit, so we are always on display. ‘I’m like a cartoon of myself’ Paris Hilton says somewhat tragically in a new documentary, which seems at the same time to be asking us to psychoanalyse her because she can’t do it for herself. Hers is an interesting example of a life stunted by its own performance. A cure for this endless exhausting narcissism surely has to be a kind of radical attention for something other than the black mirror of the smartphone screen.

FL: This question of relation is a recurrent theme across the book, and it seems to me to be at the heart of what radical attention is and does. You take great care throughout the text to highlight the physical impacts and consequences of the virtual realm. In places you describe a kind of slow persistent atrophy in the realm of the real: the slump, hunch and stare of bodies bent over phones; a skewing in our systems of perception so violent that it prevents us from recognising our Facebook 'friends' and online adversaries as fully human. One of the book's most significant challenges appears to be to this notion of 'transhumanism' as somehow utopian or liberating. You suggest that the opposite is true, that an unwillingness to acknowledge or attend to the bodies of others is a function of privilege. You state that “real bodies are problematic”. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, and the importance of remembering and attending to their complexities?

JB: Belief in transhumanism is a dodge, like planning colonies on Mars. It’s a bit like running away from the scene of the crime, rather than putting energy into the here and now. Developments in medical tech might well produce some kind of extraordinary cyborg, but this isn’t going to solve the issues that are in our face right now, which are biological, and by extension ecological. They are physical, embodied issues. The planet is trashed and dying. So are we. The question is, what are we going to do about it? I also think the pandemic reveals the limitations of the technology. It can never replace the physical presence of another person. And COVID has also put us in a situation where we are going to have to live with a great deal of uncertainty. For the privileged, this is a new and unwelcome reality, but for a lot of people it’s a familiar kind of instability.

I would say the last ten years have been about the mental zombification of a populace – the internet got mean, sinister. Donald Trump and Brexit didn’t come from nowhere, the social spaces were overwhelmed with bad actors. Military grade psy-ops, along with the amplification of outrageous actors like Hopkins and Farage. It’s worth asking who paid for those Leave adverts and what was going on behind the scenes as journalists like Carole Cadwallader are doing. Who does Brexit actually benefit and why did they spend so much money persuading us that a catastrophe was a good deal? I don’t think we’ve any clear answers to these questions and the whole situation was made murky and surreal by the proliferation of misinformation online.

FL: Following on from my previous question, one of the things that really stood out for me was your reading of Simone Weil who wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love”. This struck me so forcibly because so much of my own reading and writing recently has been around ascetic practice, and the sustained, often painful attention to the suffering of others that such practices demand. There is a kind of fudged modern reading of ascetic practice that presupposes a withdrawal from the world and a turning in toward the self, whereas the opposite is true: the anchorite is asked, as Weil asks of us, to “renounce our imaginary position at the centre” and to  fully apprehend the 'other' without distraction, sentiment, or hope of reward. To write about faith, love and the soul in a contemporary essay has often felt like a risky move. What I sense from Radical Attention is that these terms themselves have great radical and resistive potential. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how we might approach and potentially reinvigorate words and concepts that so many view with suspicion, or that have been so effectively colonised by pseudo-spiritual industries and destructive religious hegemonies alike?

JB: We got rid of religion without thinking about the place it took in society as a space for moral and spiritual questions and crucially, care. I’ve always had a problem with organised religion – in my view it’s always been on the wrong side of history in terms of money and sex. The church could be a space which enacts a kind of radical care and stops bothering about what consenting adults do in bed. But the Cof E is too compromised by its allegiance to the state, after all it was founded to allow Henry VIII to marry his next wife. That aside, we do ourselves a disservice as humans if we throw off the spiritual and philosophical questions humans have had for millennia, especially in relation to our aliveness and our place the world. Denying that we are in some ways questioning, spiritual, even moral beings, is at the core of a lot of anxiety. It’s not about having answers – this is quite clearly where madness lies – but acknowledging that we don’t know and that even without answers the questions are still valid, fashionable or not.

I also think we need new (old) language to speak against what seems to be a new kind of moral barbarism. The level of lying in the political sphere makes a mockery of the very idea of public service. What does it really mean to be a good person? What does it mean to show courage or to love someone? Where are our examples of good people? We’re surrounded by man-babies who are busy trashing everything. Healing from the damage they are causing is going to take a huge rethink in terms of what we actually value as a society.

FL: One of the things that surprised me the most about Radical Attention was the image of humanity that emerges: not feckless or desensitized, but vulnerable and deeply wounded. It would seem that our devices simultaneously insulate us from the horrors of the world, and expose us to those horrors. We become trapped within a self-referential feedback loop of our own making, unable to connect to others; we are endangered both by our own obliviousness to our surroundings, and by our infinite accessibility to the forces of neoliberal surveillance. We are phone-jacked, or data-mined, or we selfie our way over cliff edges and into oncoming traffic. The selfie deaths really got to me: that there's a Wiki page for that kind of blew my mind, as if even those deaths are sucked back up into an endlessly scrolling textureless meld of data. I wonder if you think living such disconnected and technologically mediated lives that we have lost or refused our sense of ourselves as mortal beings? How might the kind of radical attention you advocate help us to recapture that sense?

JB: This is the critical message of the book. I think our mortality – which is one of the key conundrums of being human - is cheapened by social media and is one of the issues I wanted to encourage the reader to address. The shadow of death passes over us nightly in the middle of a pandemic. It’s one of those clarifying events that reveals what is important. The difficult thing is getting in touch with our feelings about this and turning that into action. 

FL: I'm aware that this has been a very long and quite dense set of questions, so I have one more, and then that's it. I notice that throughout the essay you draw upon and quote from various works of fiction.  Fiction requires of both writer and reader a bestowing of non-trivial attention. As a writer of fiction yourself, and as someone who teaches creative writing, how has technology shaped the writing practices of this current generation, and do you think there is anything to be learnt from the models of attention espoused by the writers of creative fiction?

JB: Good writers are good observers of the world – they pay attention. They walk around the world on high alert. It’s this practise that I want to teach students. It’s what I tried to do when I wrote this – to give my attention for a concentrated period of time on one question, on what technology was doing to me. And then use these observations as evidence for argument. I’m coming at the subject not as an expert at all but as writer in the world, an observer for whom attention is the most important part of the practice. The world was feeling unreal and weird and I wanted to figure out why.

As for fiction specifically, I think one of the reasons that the structures of social media seem so clear to me is that in writing classes we are always trying to work out how to create affect in the reader. How to place the character in relation to the reader to create the best experience. How will the story carry? What is the best way to provoke surprise? Horror? Fear? Storytellers understand the human need to make patterns from chaos. How far we can push language, structure, truth before the story breaks. These skills are useful it seems, in decoding some of the fake news, and deliberate outrages that have become part of our daily lives.

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020
Sunday, 04 October 2020 22:02

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020

Published in Poetry

Poem for the Feast of Saint Francis on the subject of forgiveness, October 4th 2020

by Fran Lock


i cried for the highlands last night. for myself. there is something
writhing inside of me, a snake of mutant spleen. i waited for a storm
to make my terrors holy. concentrated days of dolorous affect, days
of squinting intensity. trump, how i hope that he chokes, and all
those social carnivores, glittering and slain. a mood of diffuse fiasco.
stubborn thing. return to the house, again and again, and dripping
wet. a bone planchette shuttled to 'no'. something, encrypted then
decoded. this volatile memory, my own. latency. of symptoms, data,
and desire. self-indulgence, self-defence. my tender recognitions
flaring up in autumn. home is terrible weather. i cannot fuss these
stanzas into flattery. the line is a slack elastic pouch; a flaccid
primordial belly, like cats. an ill-made thing, and will not
tailor my malaise to grace. i don't know how to hold my anger,
not to hate. starve a fever, someone said. and what are you, but
a fever in me? scrolled into my sticky creases, multiplying hourly.
feed a cold, and make your rippling flesh perform. wolfing, burn
the toast, and bury the bread. my mother counsels me to be
the apple round the razorblade, show 'em softness, give 'em
steel
. mother, i cannot. 'ana' is a virgin queen in a high lace
collar with an iron will, immobile and controlling. she wants
a tight enigma. poem be the tourniquet, the crawlingspace,
the tunnel in the wall. wasted or refined? to be the knife i hold,
my high ideal. flensing, flensed and thriving. so tired
of pretending, cried. a stifled recitation of all my faults and woes –
hazard, jacquard, jeopardy – my island's too, its rig-a-rendal
settlements torn up. predators, a violence as precise as law,
snagged with a pretender's claw. the crippled croft i scrambled
as a child. i did not know, the shin i skinned i scraped against the keel
of famine's ark. why are you crying, though? i answer that i cannot
reconcile: turbines, pipelines, cheviot sheep. bread so dear, life so
cheap.
a liar's mouth, drooping limply from a face. the fertile
valley limestone sacked. my worst nightmares are arid now. trees
torn up, our common pastures fallowed out by force. there's always
force. enticed, induced, tricked and trapped. a trawler, like a rake
through ash, sieving its silt bounty. let them eat slate, flint, sand,
and my attention turns to salt in looking back. offals, quarries, abattoirs.
i dream about the wicker kishes, ripped by wind. inside the kishes
stones for sucking, stones for smashing glass. we lived in a bungalow.
i'd climb from my window, roll down drifts of snow. i was so happy.
sometimes. they will not come again, those days, my dull hair
combed across my face in dialogue with crossing; cold air walking
over my arms like butterflies with green wings shut and slanted.
i'll say again, i cried for the highlands last night. i cried about
you, and the cloudy meat in super-markets, mountains of trash,
cinder-blocks, evictions, slash-and-burn, a silvery inevitable sky
we cannot breathe. chrome and choke. politicians pressing
their footprints into policy, the slicks, the culls, the mass
extinctions, motorways. peine forte of cops or climate. long
strides, and longer shadows, all those hungry thugs for money.
there's a hate in me, amplified, illegible with onslaught, how i thought
i could outrun, outgrow, forgive. so many mouths, liquid with desire,
 and glorified with gimme. these are my furies. a rage that will not
mean resistance – sorry mother – just collapse. the wilful shrinking
deep inside. starve a fever. as if i could refuse the world, and in
refusing fix or heal. i wish my mind were a cooing place, and not
this sickle den. screwdriven era, end of days. i lock the bathroom
door and howl my ghetto aishling to the gods of indoor plumbing,
black mould and metered futility. to despair is a sin, i am told, but
there's a moment in the day like a trapdoor in a stage, and i fall
through. i remember the cold, i don't remember being cold, until you.
and even in this sluggard winter heat i will never be warm. hate,
like an animal sound in the bowel, in the bone, in the brain,
in the bins at night, rooting through the rubbish. the knock and scrape.
the 'o' i keep on mouthing like a stunned ventriloquist's toy. in the night,
in the night the mind is both the nightbus and the nutter and we ride
this room to circles till our hurting circles the earth. merchants of this
circling, i wish i could forgive you, approach a wounded world with
perfect love, the carnivores and racists too, and johnson,
even trump. and every killing cop, and every crooked judge; think
-tank apologists, their counter-signed denials. rape is not a metaphor.
its own sinister unwelt, way of being in the world, a being in by
doing to. its opposite is love. i can't love you. if i could hold this hate
in my hand, could wear it soft like the sea, if a poem could encompass
this. tongue of a militant humanity: silence. in a stilled field kneeling

where the air is still green.

The image is Christ Forgiving St. Francis in a Vision, by Federico Barocci

again and again they kill him
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 08:47

again and again they kill him

Published in Poetry

again and again they kill him

by Fran Lock, with image by Martin Gollan

even now there are places where a thought might shrink –
a mind worked out and thwart with waltzy boozing, hot
with speed, still wearing all its frenzy on its sleeve. to breathe
this bitter vigilance undone. abused, becalmed, the gilded
anchors slack. to melt, exult, to rid ourselves of all those
token torments. there are places. we burn his letters in
the sink, hold them by the dog-ears of their disregard. he
was so young, and feckless in that state of being smitten.
even now the sky grows smashed to say the laggard thunder
of his name. you have to wonder. suit of clothes
coarsened into barely-man: johnson. had he recourse
to ball his fists to fossil in the pockets of his loss?
he mouths our idling maps to fire. ire-land, word
full of wasps, of paucity and nausea. he looks over
his shoulder, a convict crossing himself in the yard.
i think not. i think they do not grieve, cannot. have never
dragged themselves down streets concentric with offence
and fought another cruelly cresting thought. there are no
ghosts, striding in the violence of their migraines keying
cars. years of hopeless gluttony, and autumn has arrived,
in dejection and arrears; pyracantha, hacking cough, with
flight and threat in each averted eye. ilex, cornus,
callicalpa. we are here, touching up the hoary edges
of our need. there's a voice, drawls the collodion
strophes of his death. wooden boy, notches in his bedpost
body cut. once and always, our continuous entire.
a crow is mourning's stooge, cracked along its chorus,
wakes me, pledging feathers to the costume of my
guilt. and poetry paints its swooning mottoes everywhere.
it is no good. flowers without language, this loss: pressure
sores, eyes puckered with drink, more bleeding than is
good for beauty, the genial and fake, the frankly murderous.
there are places. some steward of a soft embrace enfold
me. you have to wonder. not expression, but escape,
wearing the bronze rosettes of brazen remedy. does he know
what it means, johnson? to spoof his mutilations in a waning
room, wearing our variant rose in the crook of an arm, on the lips
against grace, to sharpen the starving body into sleep? the clock
is an enemy, rapt with strategy. they are mostly gone, who stammered
their escape in council eyries, squats, and singing: sweet lagan, run
weary till the end of my song, till all our lustres numb, till daybreak's
craven conjuries, till kingdoms come and auld folks trade
their chitties in for loose leaf tea, till sailors step out of their shanties,
till i meet my zealous, perishable neighbour in the street and do not
spit, till i am no longer spat at, till all my gammon covenants run
blood, till my own country knows me, till i am not her inmate or
her exile, till the end of time. sweet lagan, run swiftly, till our dead
in their shining lethargy are lifted up, till the television voices
number gypsy boys among the culled. even now, as autumn
arrives with old campaigns begun afresh, we are finding ways
to kill this thought. i'd made a book his bed, the mattress
and the mire i flipped, end over end. the ciphers of a metered
time, and laid on lambswool narrowly. i run my finger round
the rim of love. it sings its whimming posey till it shatters.
johnson says no, there will be no laying down. no one to break
amends like bread. home will not be fuschia, nor a stream striven
clear. when i look at our maps i will see my grandfather's hands.
when i hold my grandfather's hand i will see blue lines
ploughed into boundaries, will see life's suffering, impaled
upon a hangnail. home will be any arbitrary nightmare, the whining
of a child-bride kept in a closet, will be telescopes trained on
an exit wound, garrote, cavort, galley-bondage; gangrene, greed
of sick natures. the hairshirt and the shipwreck. the counterfeiting
light refines whatever it touches. and by refines a kind of scraping
off. and still i hear that voice, those voices, and i have been
eating these arsenic vowels so long my tongue turns tragedian
too. lyric has this writhing sweetness to it. flags in their fascist
semaphore. he said a flag is mostly air, biddy, how a halo slips,
how a mouth is fouled. and i know and i know, but i love
the grave that grew you, boys. though all her walls have ears
inclined to eavesdrop times, though august is a punitive crescendo,
though our church had blessed the blueshirts, worn the polished
turd of tyranny, and despite the dosses, kips, the own goal in
a celtic shirt whose native language is noise. despite the bark stripped
from the trees, the necromancy of nostalgia, zombie militias
rising from the nearest limepit, haunting an english dream.
although she is a b-movie. although she is the spectacle of queer
bash and revenge porn. although she is misogyny, an enfant's
trembling rhetoric of lust. i loved you, and love makes me mediocre
with longing. you have to wonder, has longing ever possessed
this johnson like a terror? brain sticky with the latent prints
of an old pain, rising; missing a friend, a lover, a father, a daughter
whose voice made mourning? those lost and those returned. Presumed
and absolutely. a hurting fact there is no gospel for in any language.
when he wipes his arse on our peace he kills them again. and again.
those whose deaths run hot, and those whose mirror is the serpent's
mouth in trying to forget, has always been. there are places –
hanging in the aspic of our injuries. but Pig Thief, miscreant
and mutable, whose name a shadow valentine i trace across my tongue
like parma violet charm against their heresy. there is a staying with.
there will be dynasties of upturned faces, blued onto the incidental
day. the young. may their griefs be held in the palm of a hand, palmed
like marbles, rolled away, all infamies, attritions shrugged. and we will
care for them. like silence cares, like light and space, and dig ourselves
in with a gentle spade.

Working-class poetics and heeding the 'cry of the poor'
Sunday, 20 September 2020 07:21

Working-class poetics and heeding the 'cry of the poor'

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about our potential to develop and publish a new kind of poetics, where solidarity and community can be fostered in moments of lyrical, dialectical tenderness. Above image by Imtiaz Dharker, from Witches, Warriors and Workers 

We are living through a strange and difficult time for poetry; for all of art, obviously, but for poetry in particular. Poetry is being asked to hold a great deal: to offer consolation and catharsis, to express some kind of universal human experience; to speak truth to power. Everywhere people are 'turning to' poetry. Everywhere it is harnessed for its connective potentials, mobilised by emerging radical movements, or instrumentalised as inexpensive pseudo-therapy.

At the same time the position of poetry – and indeed of poets – with respect to the wider culture feels increasingly pressured and precarious. Coronavirus has thrown this precarity into sharper relief, but in truth it has been with us since the Tories took power in 2010 – certainly since Michael Gove's disastrous educational reforms of 2013, which routinised and shrunk the teaching of English in schools, and produced a 'conveyor belt' curriculum in which sustained analytical rigour, expressiveness, context, and empathy were marginalised in favour of rote learning, and the relentless memorising of disconnected 'facts.' Ofqual's recent, unprecedented, and bizarrely out of touch decision to make poetry 'optional' at GCSE level is just the latest in a long line of such manoeuvres.

In 2019 senior management at the South Bank Centre's Poetry Library floated the decision to introduce a fee of over £30 a year for all new members. This announcement was met with such a wave of protest that management were forced to retreat, offering members the opportunity to 'consult' on other options for ensuring the future of the library. These options apparently included another form of paid membership, seeking corporate sponsorship, or asking better-off patrons to make donations. Fast forward to 2020 and the South Bank Centre confirms that over two-thirds of its workforce are liable to lose their jobs. At the time of writing, the Poetry Library is closed, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

All of which speaks volumes about the state and the status of poetry in this country. There is a piece of received wisdom that suggests the Tories' policy towards particular branches of the arts is indicative of inattention or disregard, but this is not so: the signature gambit of power elites has always been to marginalise or underfund cultural activities to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. Poetry, as an artistic medium, is the perfect mode of production for those who are poor in resources and in time: it does not require specialist tools or training. It is portable and cheap; it can be practised anywhere. In other words, poetry is one of the few cultural forms that the working class and the economically deprived are able to independently access. It energises and moves us; it is a way into discursive space for those who are abjected from, and censored or misrepresented within wider political discourse. It is a site of infiltration and resistance, a scene of solidarity, a space in which connections are made and communities are fostered.

Editing out working-class voices

To penalise or discourage this vital form of working-class creativity is to deal violence to those same, nascent communities. This is cynical, deliberate, and strategic. To reduce the teaching of poetry – or drama, or history, or art, or music for that matter – to a loveless tick-box exercise is to prevent working-class students from fully apprehending the long continuum of their own oppression. It is to limit their access to currents of dissenting thought. More importantly, it is to deny them the language in which such thoughts are often formulated, weighed, and reasoned; the language in which working-class critique and resistance are so vividly broached. It is to deny them something beautiful within themselves: craft and discipline, the pleasure of making. To rob poetry both of context and of joy, is to say to working-class students 'this is not for you', 'this cannot, and did not, come from you'. It is to reabsorb something radical, dangerous, and engaging back into the self-serving myth of bourgeois literary production: a white, male, classically educated poetic canon. It is to edit out working-class voices from future poetic cohorts.

This tactic is inseparable from the funding cuts that ensure inequality of provision and of access. It might well be true that some free resources and opportunities exist for young people, but these opportunities are hedged at best, either because they are solely concentrated in Greater London, or because nobody is there to guide young working-class people towards them. The Tories are trying to engineer us out of art young at a young age. The struggle to live and to define yourself as a poet is, for working-class people, often a demoralising and exhausting experience. We force our way into culture against grim economic disparity, lack of early stage support, and the expectation that we are incapable or unequal to our art. Sadly, this expectation is often fostered in us as children or young adults until it takes root within ourselves.

Never doubt that culture is the medium through which the covert work of ideology flows. It is also the space in which such ideologies can be countered and contested. It therefore serves the right to position art and literature as optional extras, as 'luxuries' or afterthoughts, outside of and irrelevant to the power dynamics of capitalism. If they can convince a generation of working-class students that poetry does not matter, that it has no bearing upon their own lives, they can prevent them from recognising and reclaiming this important source of collective strength. If they can silence us, the current generation, by making every ambition to further ourselves and our reach untenable, by draining us of creative mental energy, then they have won on two fronts. They have cut off that important conversation with our own traditions and aesthetics before it has begun. We must not let that happen.

Working-class poetics

Despite the Tories' best efforts poetry is increasingly popular with disadvantaged young people. When governments close educational avenues to art, the spontaneous and shifting networks of solidarity engendered by new media often provide us with an alternative route. As creators and publishing cohorts we can facilitate and extend this access by making work available for free to those who cannot access it any other way. By disseminating art and poetry widely online, through websites and publishing operations such as Culture Matters, we can help to wrest the balance of power away from traditional publishing cliques. Sharing work amongst ourselves challenges the implied audience for poetry: by removing artistic production from its elite haunts, and from the hierarchy implicit in traditional models of pedagogy, we can talk directly to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas. If there is no arbiter to mediate between artists and audiences, then the conversations that matter to us survive and proliferate long after their 'moment' in mainstream culture's perpetual 'cool-hunt' has passed.

This matters enormously: working-class poetics is driven by innovation, by a relentless determination to use every available poetic resource – the metaphor, the simile, the epigraph, the aphorism; the pun, the joke, the slang expression, the advertising slogan – to further the reach of our art. In this, our work forms a textual counterpart to the resourcefulness and pressured improvisation required from us in daily life. Material necessity provokes experiment and originality, and these acts of repurposing, jerry-rigging, cobbling and borrowing are the substantial and integral features of our writing.

We learn early how to stretch what we have, how to take the unlovely or the shoddily made and turn it into treasure, nectar, sustenance. This something-from-nothing-ness is the alchemical labour of all true art. It is also the stuff of working-class survival. The conditions of working-class existence exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry, but more than this, they can be deployed by poetry as a transformative tool, one that has the potential to renegotiate terms of social and political as well as artistic encounter. Our voices matter, in all their urgency, multiplicity and difference.

The cry of the poor

I have been thinking recently about the imperative for art and poetry to heed and to express 'the cry of the poor'. I have been thinking about listening, to ourselves and to each other. It is only through sustained attention to the granular particularities of working-class experience that socialism – that any radical project of social change – can succeed. Poetry makes space to accommodate that polyvocality; it accounts for our diversity while providing an arena in which our common struggle may be apprehended, talked through and felt.

What is 'the cry of the poor'? I will tell you what it is not. It is not the undifferentiated din of feral abjection. It is that pulsing, plural music under the skin of working-class life. To be poor is to live at the mercy of language, but it is also to be fed by several streams: conflicted registers, switching codes, many modes of speaking and saying, in celebration and vigour as well as exhaustion and despair. It is for  your ways of seeing and saying to be sharpened to a cutting edge. We, who are never 'at home' in language or in culture, who can never look to culture to see glowing rose-tinted reflections of ourselves, feel within its precincts, a deep discomfort. The 'cry of the poor' speaks of and through this discomfort. It offers both a challenge and a rallying cry. Making space for this cry is not just about bearing witness to suffering, it's understanding that the cry is also testimony; that if enough of us are speaking, the cry becomes collective rebel yell.

I am writing at a time when radical presses are urgently alive to this cry. Culture Matters has published a series of anthologies reflecting a diverse array of working-class voices. These anthologies seek to account not merely for individual struggles, but to map the points of commonality and divergence in our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism. Anthologies uncover our hidden affinities, fostering class consciousness and expanding our potential networks of solidarity.

Working with Jane Burn on the anthology of contemporary working women's poetry, Witches, Warriors, Workers, provided a precious and very practical mechanism for nurturing a sense of community. The vision that emerged from this work was one of collective struggle and mutual achievement; the indisputable fact that that none of us ever rise alone.  The anthology provides a space in which to enact the sorority and class consciousness it dares to imagine.

This is a mighty thing. To acknowledge and to relate to each other as creators feels powerful and timely. Heeding the 'cry of the poor', is also to understand that we are not merely subject to the cruelties and caprices of power, but that we can meaningfully and collectively carve out space to challenge them. Poetry is ours, by right and by necessity, and we must do all we can to keep that knowledge alive.

To that end, the two poems I would like to introduce are by working-class women who, in different ways, bear witness to the complexities and sorrows of working-class life, but whose deftness and vibrancy of language inform a work of militant cherishing. The care and control these poems evince is a care and control that is seldom afforded the poets as citizens and subjects. The poems that contain this care function, then, as small units of resistance. Against alienation, exhaustion and fear they erect a moment of lyrical, dialectical tenderness.

I am Road, I am Mother, I am a Better Person Now, I am Failed

By Jane Burn

So I have this ache (suddenly) to run. Don’t go thinking I’m fit, that I flow
like a river. I just got sick, sick of the sight of myself, sick of the unpleasant
feeling of flesh. I have dreamed this cumbrance away for after all, I am only
a frame of weeping bits. I have spent too much of this elongated time
on my back (imagining sky), wishing my grody molecules would buzz
into the air, away like flies, like a bluebottle cloud. When was the last time
I properly slept? I get rid of portions of the dark – scald my corneas
on some book, blink on grit. Fail to feel the words go in. Forget
what I have read. Masturbate. Not because I’m thinking sex. Because
I have to find something buried in myself, like trying to remember
when I was last alive, like trying to get to the beat in a dead bird’s breast.
I just want to find some sign of now, some flicker of life. The rest of the time
I turn like a bundle of sticks, go numb, think or don’t think, turn the cogs
on morsels of the previous day, or let the coils of my brain be void.
My eyes swell like storm drains, my ears keep primed. When I hear the dawn,
I cry for the squandering of another night. I want to clamber out of this skin.
It weighs me like wet wool, a flaccid coat. Thirteen weeks of fear
have kept me to the confines of this home and I have crept like a fat automaton,
fridge to stool, rug to window, hall to bathroom, cupboard to bed, have pacified
my family with mountains of bread. I have filled my mouth and eaten my way
into pain. I want my bones. I want myself to carve her bright way back.
So I say to my son let’s run. I don’t say let’s run away from ourselves.
I think I broke for good. All I can think of is how many shitty things I did
or said. I didn’t know is no excuse and now I do, I see that my tongue
has been a knife, a cudgel, an evil fish. Every day I spew for fear and wait
for a hand on my shoulder, remember too much the shove in the guts,
fist on my cheek, a rip in my cunt. I kneel beneath an accusation of sky,
say please help me, help me please for I have almost had enough
of this kind of life. Smile, smile, smile, smile, smile. Smile and think
of the phone number that the clinic gave for such vile emergencies and I
(will not) have not phoned it because they did not remember how I said
I hate talking on the phone, would rather scratch my arm-skin off. I’m sorry.
I’m trying to make amends. So me and my son, we run. I found a road
where hardly anyone goes – past the church ’cause nobody has any time
these days for God – besides, all their doors are locked, so suffer your sin
in silence. Them that need some wine and wafer genuflection, I guess
just go without. Past the Shrine of the Two Marys – oh, how I have
worshipped their crumbling prayer, their sad relics, their pietà of mist,
their concrete knees. At least this Lockdown, somebody got round
to painting them fresh again, hung baskets of flowers on each side,
like pendulums keeping time. I stagger past and wish for selfish things –
MaryMothers, make me thin, MaryMothers, I’m not that person anymore.
MaryMothers, put out the pains in my head. In front, my tall son.
Me behind, running upon the long cast of his shadow, like he’s
getting away and always forever I’m failing to catch him up.

Packing Two Gold Necklaces

By Hibaq Osman

When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage

      which is to hold
your great grandmother and great grandchild
in one hand
and a tasbeeh in the other
you say insha Allah, God will free us
and prepare for the unknown
often, water
           often, death

When there is talk of warriors
the bustle of kitchens is omitted,
but recipes are strategically altered
in new weather
on new lands

isn’t a sword just a knife
that has been repurposed?
Which is to say you have made do

behind the curtains of sons
and into the long memories of your daughters
whose minds are a maze of language
that cannot translate
your name

Nobody will speak of what you left behind
to carry us forward,
least of all yourself
instead:
Allahu aclam /
                        God knows best

Jane Burn’s poems have appeared in many magazines. Her poems have regularly placed in poetry competitions both national and international. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLER Press, 2016), and her collections are nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017 co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters,2018), Fleet (Wyrd Harvest Press) and Remnants, co-written with Bob Beagrie (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019), Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). In 2018 three of her poems were nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prize, and Jane is a joint winner of the 2020 Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite.

Hibaq Osman is a Somali writer born and based in London. Her work largely centers women, identity and the healing process with a focus on the often hidden, nuanced aspects of our experiences. Her debut poetry collection, A Silence You Can Carry, was published with Out-Spoken Press in 2015. In 2017 she released her online poetry chapbook the heart is a smashed bulb.

Witches, Warriors and Workers: an Anthology of Contemporary Working Women’s Poetry is available here. 

The Children of the Nation: an Anthology of Working People's Poetry from Contemporary Ireland is available here.

Onward / Ymlaen!: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Wales is available here.

Almarks: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland is available here.

A Kist of Thistles: an Anthology of Radical Poetry from Contemporary Scotland is available here.

The Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2020 is available to pre-order from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This article is being jointly published by Communist Review.

'Between Misery and the Sun': I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill
Tuesday, 01 September 2020 08:19

'Between Misery and the Sun': I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill

Published in Life Writing

Fran Lock reviews Charlie Hill's new memoir

Charlie Hill's memoir, I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, is told in a series of linked poetic vignettes. 'Vignettes' is definitely the right word too: each memory comes to the reader as a distinct and self-contained portrait, distilled with great clarity and precision. This is not the discursive 'anecdotal' memoir so beloved of celebrities. Hill writes with a pleasing economy of expression, and the deft arrangement of judiciously selected details. The book refuses to impose an explicit narrative trajectory onto events, but allows for the organic accumulation of small though significant moments, creating a sense of life as it is lived, without the heavy-handed interventions of authorial hindsight. In fact, Hill eschews a number of well-worn autobiographical manoeuvres, skilfully avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality, painfully obvious foreshadowing, and – my personal bête noire  – nostalgia-by-numbers.

This last matters enormously, and is crucial to an understanding of Hill's work as an important contribution to working-class life writing. Too often literary memoirs fall back on or into generalisations to create and sustain their sense of time and place: what was playing on the radio, what was happening in the news, what people were driving, smoking, wearing. Hill doesn't do this, and it is a relief. The effect is local, intimate, and compelling. There is no attempt, witting or unwitting, to homogenise the complexities of lived experience into a soup of what Peter Davidson has called 'benign pastness'. Hill's vignettes are particular and attentive, adroitly dancing between the subjective and the social. For this reason, the memoir calls our attention to the English class system in all its subtle and maddening gradations. Two passages stand out as especially well-realised in this regard. In the first, Hill is describing the persistent insecurity that surrounded his own and his family's class identity. Writing about his mother, a vicar's daughter, Hill states:

“We were poor,” she said once at a family do, “so poor we couldn’t even afford a television.” And then, “I’ll always remember the vicarage at Taddington. It had this enormous staircase with these great sweeping banisters that we used to slide down. (p.2)

In another memorable section, Hill begins an ultimately doomed career at the local grammar school, where he 'opens a book' on a fight between two of his peers, 'the cock' of his junior school, and a 'kid from Alum Rock'. For those not in the know – as Hill was not – Alum Rock was and is a notoriously deprived inner city suburb of Birmingham:

The fight lasted as long as it took for the kid from Alum Rock (look it up) to walk up to my man and drop the nut on him... (p.5)

There's a self-deprecating humour at play here, Hill making fun of himself and his own socially unaware naivety, but there's also something painful, an anxiety and a confusion about the grim social realities that drive and underpin such scenes. Although the loser is rather genteelly described as Hill's 'man', use of the vernacular 'drop the nut on him' signals at least a desire to identify with the other boy, the material conditions of whose life were shaped by forces literally unknown and unimagined by Hill. Elsewhere in the book, Hill describes his removal from the grammar to the local 'comp' where his father teaches, and where he comes under fire for being 'posh' (p.6). Taking on some of the poshness attributed to him, Hill describes himself as 'frequently involved in fisticuffs', a stoically understated way of talking about an experience few would covet. There is much to say here, about Hill's dexterity in playing with the slips and switches of code required of a child in his situation. Other writers might have eked this section of the memoir out for page after page of hand-wringing analysis, but a good part of Hill's characteristic skill is in leaving these unspoken tensions unspoken, by not applying an adult understanding to a child's intense experiences Rather, Hill uses language to signal the ever-present interplay of class dynamics: showing, not telling, in the best tradition.

It is also striking that Hill doesn't take a position on events, nor does he attempt to coerce or cajole his readers into taking one. He is not preoccupied with presenting an image of himself, either as valorous,  victimised, or villainous. He is not adopting a pose, but presenting a series of experiences for us to make of what we will. Again, this feels invigoratingly fresh. The image of Hill that emerges from the book is likeable, clear-sighted and astute, and – most unusually – without pretence or vanity. Not that Hill doesn't signal his own vanity and pretentiousness, but when he does, he does so with a redeeming self-awareness that reads as genuine and comfortable. Speaking about his early adolescent activism Hill writes 'I was, I suspect, insufferable on the quiet.' (p.7)

Later, describing his literary ambitions he makes the somewhat deflationary statement, 'I finish my novel about books. It has taken me a long time. I try to get it published and am buoyed by the responses of publishers who don’t publish it.' (p.86) What connects Hill's writing about both his politics and his career is his ability to laugh at himself without sneering at the causes or vocations that have mattered most to him. This is not Portrait of the Writer as a World Weary Cynic. No sense of 'knowing better' now haunts Hill's descriptions of idealism, excess or ambition. Rather, we see our humble narrator in a constant state of development or change, alert and open to new possibilities. In an era where neoliberal identity politics holds sway, and writers in particular are under persistent pressure to crystallise and calcify their image or their 'brand', Hill's approach comes across not only as zesty but potentially radical.

The form Hill deploys seems to emphasise this sense of openness and change: a hybrid form, somewhere between poetry and prose, where the lines of each short paragraph are often connected and propelled by their sonic properties, for example: 'shinning up lampposts and schlepping round the council estates of Northfield espousing unilateral nuclear disarmament...' (p.7) or, from later in the book, 'We enjoyed particularly sensual, soft-focus sex but irked each other too and the mid-term prognosis was underwhelming; shortly after I dallied with an ex...' (p.62). Alliteration and half-rhyme abound, and Hill has the poet's knack for linking unusual and sonorous phrases; this provides each scene with momentum and texture, and lifts them from a mere recitation of stuff that happened. There's intricate work going on here, on the level of lexis and the level of sound, and this work leads us from moment to moment, creating a porousness between memories so that they bleed and blur like real life.

And in the midst of the bleed and blur there are the moments that stop you cold, either in their tenderness and beauty or their unblinking witness to misery. Midway through the memoir, there is this description, baldly concrete in its abjection:

A low point. It seemed everyone I knew was poor. The DSS office in Highgate overlooked two abattoirs. It had reinforced glass windows and the staff were suicidal. (p.44)

There's a kind of socialist realism to such descriptions, and this is where Hill's memoir resonates the most for me, when he conjures the peculiarly embattled feeling that saturated left-wing and working-class politics in the eighties and nineties. There was the sense of being on the cusp of change, of living in and through a time of ferment, of something about to happen. This feeling seems composed of equal parts vitality and futility. It produced a kind of hedonism, led by the optimism that just by living you could change things, and the suspicion that nothing you did made any difference at all. It was, is – and I find myself using this word a lot about Hill's memoir – nuanced. Hill seems at home with this ambivalence, and it brings to his writing a real complexity and truthfulness.

Other writers, myself included, would – and have – dwelt at length on the disillusionments and failures that marked Blair's election and tenure, and the collapse of a credible left into excess, apathy and liberalism, but Hill is not judgemental or moralising, and however bleak things get, there is always humour, and on occasions, arresting glimpses of beauty:

Now a baby girl, another never-ending new. Soon there is a photograph that will be forever in my head, of son and daughter leaping into the air above a meadow, waving sticks, suspended between sky and earth (p.89)

Reading the word 'suspension' makes me think of Albert Camus, and a quote that seems very applicable to Hill's writing. 'To correct a natural indifference', writes Camus, 'I was placed half-way between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn't everything.' Hill will undercut any notion of the memoir as a vehicle for individual exceptionalism by humorously downplaying his achievements into 'a defeat of many colours' (p.95), but also rejects the typical trajectories of misery memoir with moments of solidarity and love, 'I have a family and I love it with a love that is no part of any of this, a love that lives where all else vanishes or is unreal.' (p.84) Here, I think, is the real triumph of this work: its commitment to the ambiguities and contradictions of lived experience, in a way that is unique to the life it portrays while being deeply resonant with and for its readers.

Reading the book one afternoon, I sprayed coffee down myself while laughing at the following passage:

I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine (p.94)

I laughed, a lot. Because not in spite of the fact it really isn't funny. My laughter was a kind of resistance, a belligerence, in the face of a world where contracting Lyme disease might provide a welcome respite from precarity, tedium, and the soul-numbing effects of late-stage capitalism. Hill's book invites and summons that laughter, laughter which is a true expression of solidarity.

The book is available here.

the pilgrims' way
Friday, 28 August 2020 11:15

the pilgrims' way

Published in Poetry

the pilgrims' way

by Fran Lock, with image by Steev Burgess

here in the heat, in my membrane of grief and spleen,
i have watched you, in the seizure of your ceremonies,
angerlund. maudit and sly, and when will you be full
enough of siege and ante? shuffle to tuppenny aggro
in carpet slippers yet again. your mouth is a triangle
flap that will not close, a hardman's nicked achilles.
i have tried to love you. sold my bones for a retching
wage. land of gloomy fortitudes, would boil my
stubborn paddiness for glue. to say i saw the best
minds, run mendicant and gremlin from your shit-
brick schools would be to chew the cud of an old
complaint, perfect the circuit of my loss in long
unlearning loops. what for? you pious women, white
as laboratory mice, albinised by bigotry; goliards
putting the mockers on, floggers of hooky scones,
all chequered cloth, and soft-paste porcelain. you,
of the wastrel rackets: heritage and history. your
england's not a theme-park, is a gift shop: machine-
tooled saints, bent by the weather, acid-etched in
steel, swing from the dinky gibbets of a million key
rings. i have tried to love you. i was walking my love
uphill like a bike at the height of summer. a warp
of steel it hurt to touch, the bars bent in, a wheel
beyond repair. this effortful possessiveness we
feel for broken things, i feel for you, angerlund.
repentance's schlep. brothers carried their
steepening creeds across gorse and whin. women
and men, bearing poverty's narrow demands
from jarrow to london. and we, who've walked
the corners off this coast in coming after. do you
not know us now? you've made of every road,
a wall. i have tried so hard. on an evening ferrous
with pesticide, the scent of resin, thyme. we are
not compressed in prayer, folded up like paper
snakes about to spring. willow herb and pine,
the scarp we scuff our insoles on.
first abundance, then the blight:
status malus, vana salus. we creep along
the spine of the world, like fear. how
chance describes a spiral to the sea. here,
where schools are the ghettos of your doom,
where austerity's diamanté hangs in pendant
tackiness above the arcade car park, still
there is beauty. not yours, with your tannoy
voice, its monologue of tetanus threat. your chalk
default, this coast. monetised and fortified, until
the shrines gape like forecourts. there is kindness
here, but not yours, somnambulists, laying your
cables of petty connection. crepe-hangers, miming
pity with a meme. god is not an englishman, upright
in his martial law. a tweedy mouth, propped open
in a yawning ban, or pursed in plasticky intactness.
god is not corduroy and carvery beef, the sound
of loaded stomachs, snoring on a sunday to omnibus
and supplement and gravy-doze. angerlund, you talk
like daytime television, like you could contradict
the tide. you talk the causeway into flood, like christ
were a stylus finger gouging keep out in the sand.
oh, you peddlers of fences, slender means and private
driveways, national identity. the bridleway, the brae,
the crag, the scrub grass wagging, green and blue.
i dream of saints, like the ghosts of slapstick
piano movers, hefting relics, hid in caves. breath
of heather, pheasant-startle, lichen, sunlight after
rain. i dream omnia sunt communia. a safe harbour,
a hand extended. they were fleeing too. we are
each other. what is a coast? a compromise:
the desert and the sea. a meeting place. shit for
your saxon flags pegged out to make a cordon.
god, not a badge you polish to belonging. spit-
shined faces, officially stamped. not rank or
fealty, tidal bloodlines. the only kingdom is within.
angerlund, i stroke this coast, your
remnant hem, in hope. lose you to a blue
erosion. we are many. we will win.

Poetry and class in a time of cholera
Monday, 27 July 2020 11:03

Poetry and class in a time of cholera

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities

During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.

Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion:  poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.

This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report  that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?

Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.

The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.

Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.

Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.

I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.

I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'

They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.

Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful.  Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?

Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.

To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism
Saturday, 20 June 2020 08:27

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

Published in Poetry

a break in the weather

by Fran Lock, with image by Steev Burgess

even the dogs, distended with heat. i wanted rain.
women with their conscientious shopping washed
away. these mutant brides of hygiene, trending
and aerobic, who tsk my dirty boots in queues.
this mineral stutter. gardens stained with brute
occasion. chalk reproach. hedges choked with
bunting. england: a comic turn, drawing a string
of flags from his fly. rapture of hands. i wanted
rain. trampling the vintage of a sun-fucked face.
on days when days are graves. lack gravity or grace.
men, in the blank stare of their tatts, whose guts
are globes, whose biceps groan with empire.
anchors, roses, fragments of a fragrant name. rain.
to rinse this sickness, island ridicule from skin. this
city, where history exceeds its shadow. stall
and loop. audition the deadpan fault that feeds on
us. again, again. estates unspeak their skinner box
verbatim. smoke. and flame. conditioned
and engulfed. we are. i wanted rain to put these
civic fevers out. they're burning still. in vicious
figment cinders, still. my friend, to tread your
empty name to echo. to write the slant exception
of your name on dirty walls. the rain would wash
this too. and our illuminated wasteland: the futile,
sovereign portraits of our martyrs: bishops,
pricks and pawns. and you. any name to sanctify
a scene of threshing hurt. tread these borders,
boards, you walk abroad like thespy ghosts.
could cast your emanated arms in wax this
night. christ's face in the grain of the kitchen
table. his imprint in the splinters. rain. to dress you
in this deluge too, and all our mob, their masochist
vulgarities, in chains and chains and chains. cats,
made manx with mutilation, maimed like saints,
they spray their sympathetic wounds on everything.
i wanted rain. percussive stunt with thunder purge
the shape of me made minotaur and new. to flirt
my thrashing form through calendars and mazes,
prose. where others have been before. and i am
the turd emoji of trespass, an effluent refrain you'd
scoop from pools. i have written this poem before.
no, this poem was written without me: into the decimal
amber jots of a pit bull's eyes forever. into the garret
appetites of libertines, the somnolent garotte
of smack, mouths slack with musing, yielding in
their eyries to the pleasures of the spleen. and chains
and chains and chains. and rain. escape is begun by
betrayal. give me courage enough for that. to know
all flags are hoax, all names. to refute her slovenly
canticles, that fine old woman, who's lairy pastures'
rearing only weeds. she'd bind your bogmouth
shut with reeds. tell me, my friend, why i feel so
unclean. on the corner, some preacher spilling
wilful tight-lipped syruptone, his reflection warped
in windows. the fields have shed their shovels too,
and idiots are out there, begging brightness from
sky, the cryptic elegance of herons, cranes, the
chancy depth of rivers. i wanted rain. concentric
shocks that drive me inward toward you. something
clockwise breaking. covert and austere. england: rolling
up the sleeves of rumour, readies his ringmaster's whip.
god is a portable darkroom tonight. your image resolves
in a shallow chemical bath. a whisper arrives from
the outside world. the rain will come. canned laugh.
little white lies. promises, promises.

Flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

by Fran Lock

 Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. This poisonous myth of 'resilience'. Politicians love that word, and in recent years it has become a useful get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would make a fetish out of working-class survival to serve their own devious ends. Don't let them do it. This 'spirit of the blitz' thing is a lie. This government's persistent attempts to analogise coronavirus as an invading 'enemy' is insidious bullshit of the first order. This is not a 'war' against ideological opponents. The virus is remorseless and motiveless. It isn't tactical. When politicians recruit the iconography of the Second World War it allows them to yoke values of endurance, stoicism and sacrifice to a creepy nationalistic script that is toxic to the notion of global solidarity. To class solidarity too.

If fortitude is continually positioned as an exemplary British quality, then those who are not comfortably or obviously accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness become morally suspect by default. Hate crime is on the rise. Xenophobia is on the rise. Antiziganism is on the rise. Further, by presenting the crisis on purely national terms, the government is able to elide the inequalities that exacerbate the virus and which the virus further exacerbates, cynically presenting Covid-19 as some kind of great leveller, which it manifestly is not. If you are poor you are twice as likely to die. If you are a person of colour and poor you are four times more likely to die. These are the facts.

The cynical manipulation of language, memory, identity and the dead

Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. There was no Knees Up Mother Brown amongst the rubble. The outbreak of the Second World War saw a sharp increase (57%) in crimes of all kinds. There was hoarding, racketeering, speculation, a flourishing black market. There was violence too. The 'plucky resolve' of the poorest amongst us was a government fiction driven by propaganda films such as 'London Can Take it!' That famous photograph of the milkman picking his way through a bombed out street to deliver the milk? Fake. The man in the picture is not a milkman, but a photographer's assistant, posed in a white coat.

FL milkman 741x388

That isn't to suggest that acts of great kindness and courage did not take place. The point is, there can be no visual shorthand or semantic catch-all for the complexities of mass conflict or the trauma it initiates. To act as if there can is insulting and monumentally inattentive to history. Inattentive to the present too, and to those who exist under such conditions still; whose experience of the current pandemic is and will be shaped by the legacy of diplomatic sanctions and military intervention both. Coronavirus isn't war. It isn't like war either. Nothing is. But what does link both experiences is the government's cynical manipulation of language, memory, national identity, and the dead.

Listen, it isn't happening the way they're telling you it is. V.E. Day threw these manipulations into sharp relief for me, walking home in the sweltering heat, through a wasteland of flags and 'patriotic' bunting, the strains of Vera Lynn blaring through somebody's open window. I wanted to stop one of the women, flipping over charcoaled something on her barbecue, and ask her 'what are you celebrating?' but was worried the answer would only depress me. Many of the flags were accompanied by slogans, either posted in windows, inked onto the fabric of the flags themselves, or chalked inexpertly onto the pavement: 'Thank You Key Workers!', 'Thank You NHS', 'Stay Home, Save Lives', 'We ♥ NHS!' Laudable sentiments, as they go, but something about the way in which they were nationalistically framed is deeply disturbing. Something about the reductive sound-bite quality of the statements displayed against backdrop of union flags. As if we, the working-classes, had become the chief producers of our own propaganda.

The sacrifice of workers

The allied defeat of the Nazis is a testament to international cooperation, and the fight against fascism is an ongoing struggle, one worthy of commemoration and respect. However, mainstream media narratives have, for years, been subtly recalibrating these acts of remembrance to suggest that working-class life has value only when instrumentalised in the service of the military industrial complex. And 'sacrifice', particularly of poorly paid and exploited workers, has become the rhetorical and thematic hinge between a nostalgic evocation of war-time Britain and the Britain of our current crisis. The 'sacrifice' for example of front-line NHS staff. The 'sacrifice' of those providing essential services and exposing themselves to the risk of infection. The 'sacrifice' of care workers, bin men, and bus drivers. The 'sacrifice' of postwomen, check-out operators, and teachers. 'Sacrifice'. As if they were soldiers. As if the daily risk to their lives was a deliberate and meaningful choice in a world of infinite options.

When the government, through its various media mouthpieces, speaks about the 'heroism' of these people, it does so in an act of abdication. If key workers are engaged in feats of exemplary individual bravery, then their deaths are their gift to us. The state bears no responsibility for allocating adequate resources, or prioritising safe and fully-funded working conditions so that these deaths may be avoided. No, a floral tribute and a posthumous round of applause are quite sufficient. And the beauty of that system is that after these people are dead they can continue to be exploited, as political propaganda.

It's not the way they say it is. The 'sacrifice' narrative allows governments to arbitrate on which working-class lives are meaningful and which are not, contingent upon our 'usefulness'. It's a farce. Or it would be if it were remotely amusing. How can Johnson invoke the spectre of herd immunity – a strategy guaranteed to impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest – one minute, then bombastically extol the virtues of key workers the next? We are the same people, the same communities, but it is only those of us actively risking and losing our lives to the functioning of society or the machinery of capitalism who are worthy of notice. This was ever the strategy of the military industrial complex, which for years has mobilized the bodies of working-class men and women to recruit support for its interventions and to shield itself from criticism: if you protest the war – any war – you are pissing on the memory of those who 'died for you'. A proper display of 'gratitude' entails a tacit acceptance of the ideologies that produced that war, the exploitation of working-class labour by the armed forces, and the unacceptable conditions under which many military personnel serve. This is the government's strategy with regards to key workers too.

A stale, pale history

So, 'what are you celebrating?' What is being marked, remembered or enshrined? What kinds of equivalence are being posited? What notions of 'service', notions of 'endurance'? It hurts my head. On the phone that night to an elderly relative who tells me I'm 'overthinking', who says, 'of course you wouldn't join in, you hate Britain.' I almost want to cry. I want to shout. I don't 'hate Britain', not in the way that he means. I hate the way political elites exploit and abuse their people; I hate the way successive governments have made a fetish out of our endurance when endurance was unavoidable, when survival was our only priority. I hate the way they leave our traumas unrecorded and untreated, then reimagine us, years down the line, as cheerfully mucking in and making do. I hate nostalgia, and the way the Tories have weaponised it to turn us against one another. I hate the way our richly storied subjectivities have been flattened and diluted to produce a stale, pale history by numbers: Vera Lynn and victory rolls, polka-dot dresses and nylon stockings, gollywog jam and rationing.

FL Nelsons Column during the Great Smog of 1952

It's not the way they tell you that it is. I lay awake and thought about it for hours. I'd been reading about the Great Smog of 1952, a public health disaster that's almost vanished from popular consciousness. How Britain's cleaner burning anthracite coal had been exported to pay off war debts, which left thousands of predominantly working-class homes burning toxic 'nutty slack' instead. Over five days in December 12,000 people died as a result of a pall of poisonous vapour that settled on London. Mostly poor people. The government of the day – Churchill's government – were insultingly supine in the face of these deaths. The war was over. Working-class life no longer mattered.

I have always mistrusted public displays of remembrance. At their best they provide an opportunity for disparate people to coalesce around a moment, to find community and meaning in their separate experiences of tragedy. But at their worse they make a fetish of the dead. They lose the granular particularity and almost infinite tenderness with which human life deserves to be mourned and cherished. Such ceremonies embrace spectacle, which is hardly conducive to acts of probing reflection; they universalise experience, which tends to evade any form of reckoning with the historic and material forces that produced the death. They reclaim our dead from us, gather them up into narratives of nationhood or 'cause' or party. 'The dead' become an abstract concept, an undifferentiated mass whose job it was to die and to be dead. After sufficient time has passed we forget that they were people like ourselves. In which context, what does it mean to 'commemorate' or 'remember'? If the war is obscured behind period costume, sound-track and slogan, and all the aesthetic signifiers of its era, then what is it we are being asked to 'commemorate'? Who is steering the ship of public memory?

'Long live death!' is a fascist slogan. José Millán-Astray, a key military figure in Franco's dictatorship came up with that one. Nauseating, isn't it? And echoed everywhere throughout fascist discourse and rhetoric. For fascism the dead are always with us, an immortal moral exemplar, constantly evoked and enlisted through ritual; through myriad speech acts, inscribed upon civic space in countless memorial gestures. For fascism, it is death itself which confers meaning upon the life of a person. Conquest is glorious, but death is the sanctifying seal set upon conquest. That is, of course, if death comes at the service of the fascist state. The most exemplary deaths are those that take place during war: 'War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the peoples who have the virtue to face it.' writes Giovanni Gentile in the odious Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten on behalf of Benito Mussolini, 'All other tests are but substitutes which never make a man face himself in the alternative of life or death.'

Further on, from the same text, 'In Fascism man is an individual who is the nation and the country. He is this by a moral law which embraces and binds together individuals and generations in an established tradition and mission, a moral law which suppresses the instinct to lead a life confined to a brief cycle of pleasure in order, instead, to replace it within the orbit of duty in a superior conception of life, free from the limits of time and space a life in which the individual by self-abnegation and by the sacrifice of his particular interests, even by death, realises the entirely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.' Discursive, rapturous, and broadly nonsensical. Remind you of anyone?

I'm being somewhat facetious, of course. But only somewhat. Neither Trump nor Johnson are afraid to co-morbidly entwine notions of nationhood and sacrifice in ways uncomfortably close to fascist ideology. That doesn't make them fascists, not exactly, but it shows, I think, that capitalism and fascism are kindred spirits. There's an Adorno quote that is applicable here: 'Fascism is itself less 'ideological', in so far as it openly proclaims the principal of domination that is elsewhere concealed.' For Adorno capitalism is more dangerous because its messages are coercive, manipulative and insidious. Yet through its covert workings, its slick populist appeals, its slogans, its dexterous deployment of nostalgia, its sentimental appeals of concepts like 'resilience', and 'freedom', capitalism can help to bring about the conditions under which fascism can rise and flourish. And this should give all of us pause.

breath
Sunday, 31 May 2020 17:04

breath

Published in Poetry

breath

by Fran Lock, with image by Martin Gollan

inside this symmetrical fiction of skins, we do not court
the carnivore attentions of a cop with eyes like bullicante
glass. we do not wear our reservoirs. we do not bear our
freight of names upon the face; find a dirty jest of us in all
the ugly campaign prosodies of power. death, persistent
and repeating. our dying, sanctioned by habit. this habit
of skin. yes, we've felt our paddy slanguage also choked.
but no: that cop will never twist our workaholic wrists
behind our back because. and just because. such luxury,
this silence. to breathe. if breath could split this pidgin
midnight into mercy. if poems could. if meter weren't this
proxy skin, a creditable flesh, i'd breathe. and breathe this
swift and futile morning out. whose name is not a slogan.
whose skin is not a flag. whose saying should be supple
love. this poem, that takes up more space on the page
than some people do in the whole wide world. white
space of the page. white space of a lung. could open
this pieta! into seeming air.

'Vulnerable'
Wednesday, 27 May 2020 14:23

'Vulnerable'

Published in Poetry

"Vulnerable"

by Fran Lock

for Dominic Cummings

In the not quite kiltered moments
just before morning makes disorder
of the rec, I grind my teeth on you.
No Classic sweet alas. No hyacinths
here, private and wild. No wood. Or,
only the mongrel copse complete
with mottled pong of piss and dog,
between the railway track and off-
white hospital. Ruin is a word for
teeth round here. Or, for the cold,
congealing meat of suppers spoilt.
And where a dark ingress breathes
welcome-wet, the damp ground
waxes nettles, whispers threat in
broken glass and rusted wire. Air
alive with flies. But still, women
come with shining eyes to spread
a chequered blanket down
and name the errants of the hedge -
pigeon, finch, and tit, and sparra
- laughingly to children. And who
amongst them now has gran or job
or benefit or friend? Or car. Women
who fall between I can't afford to
work and the cost of not, measured
in evictions. There are those who
have no one. There are those who
have, whose escape extends no
further than their balcony, long
sleeves in summer so the bruises
don't show. There are no fucking
castles here. Cheap masks through
which a bilious argot strains.
There's a queue for the shops
an hour long; gym equipment
poking up through uncut grass
like spiky flowers. There's women,
pushing buggies, pushing swings,
thronging on this fickle dip of land
between dogend and dogshit,
making do. And you, eyes half
shut, and lousy with calculation,
cut a word from all our meaning
skin: vulnerable. I have other
words for you. But no. I prefer
the mother, holding a dog daisy
out to her child. On our scrap
of paradise, a buccaneer hope.

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