80 years later, another politically conscious and technically skilful poet rises to the challenge of ‘unfolding the lie’, as Christopher Norris’s eloquent and combative voice rings out, as sharp and satirical as Auden. In the light of the forthcoming general election, a more topical collection of politically committed poetry would be hard to imagine.
The author of The Trouble with Monsters (Culture Matters, 2019) writes poems based on topical events which broaden out to reveal, lampoon and lament the underlying problems of capitalist society. Conflicts relating to gender, inequality, migration, ethnic difference, culture wars and generational barriers are all unearthed and firmly linked to the fundamental class differences which divide capitalist societies.
A sequence of poems on the cultural and political theories of T. W. Adorno, which have done so much to uncover the horrors of late capitalist culture, illuminate the poems and cartoons that engage with the realities of material existence, in family life, workplaces, sports activities and other sites of class division, exploitation and oppression.
Christopher Norris’s incisive voice is perfectly complemented by Martin Gollan’s insightful drawings. Collaged fragments of texts and images not only illustrate the argument of the poems but also carry their own distinctly graphic message in a vivid counterpoint to the text, graphically condensing the satirical thrust of the poems.
Release a Rage of Red is a selection of entries to the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2019, sponsored by Unite.
Every year it becomes more of a challenge to judge these poems. This year, there was a large number of beautifully written, often angry, urgent and deeply moving poems on a wide range of compelling issues, including many more entries from women and young people. Our ‘Unite in Schools’ programme takes us round schools to talk to young people about trade unions and the kind of collective action that’s needed to campaign against inequality.
We need to run a version of this fabulous competition in schools, colleges and universities, to support the young activists of tomorrow to creatively express their growing, sharpened sense of inequality, along with support for their ability to self-organise and to harness social media.
– Mary Sayer, Unite Education Officer
Not only were there many more entries than in previous years, there was also not a weak poem among them. It was good to see so much feeling and argument harnessed to craft and invention. There was also a tremendous range of subjects addressed — inequality, racism, poverty, austerity, environmental destruction, disability, class, gender, education — not as abstract evils, but as lived, felt oppressions.
A lot of these poems express a kind of helpless melancholy about the state of the world. Others are written in anger and shame at what this country has become, but manage to contain their rage and focus their anger to hit precisely described targets.
– Andy Croft, poet and publisher of Smokestack Books
Raptures and Captures follows on from Muses and Bruises and Ruses and Fuses, both published by Culture Matters. It is inspired by liberation theology and a fascination with the continuing relevance of the lives of the saints to a radical, liberating politics. As one poem’s title states, we are ‘In Need of Saints’.
So Fran Lock sets about re-imagining the lives 0f the saints in modern contexts. Apocryphal juxtapositions are sprung in the shapes of modern-day activists, enduring pop-culture icons like Tony Hancock and Ian Curtis, and the exploited, abused and oppressed amongst us.
Fran Lock's poems are slip-stitched with punchy tropes and vivid turns of phrase. There are echoes of Sylvia Plath, John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins in her uncompromising psychical explorations, self-scouring confessionalism, and vivid, macabre imageries. Suffering, trauma, and spiritual anguish, and the exhaustion, depression and suicidal ideation of working women and men, all overlaying visions of hope and redemption, are continuous themes in her poems.
The images by Steev Burgess which accompany the poems share and express the same dialectical combination of anger and gentleness, strength and vulnerability. As in the other two volumes, the stunning, taboo-busting collages poignantly combine the grime and glitter of modern life in fragmented, uncertain but coherent juxtapositions of images and words, reinforcing, developing and extending the meanings of the poems.
Class conflict, and the various ways class divisions are expressed and resolved in personal relationships, from outright violence to affection and peaceful co-existence, form the central themes of this outstandingly original new film, written and directed by Mark Jenkin. Set in a Cornish fishing village, the story is about the clash between well-off incomers and the local precariat – working families struggling to make a living.
It’s modern Britain writ small, where fundamental economic inequality generates mutual incomprehension, resentment, and an angry sense of betrayal brought on by the loss of proper work and decent housing. Ring any bells with what you’ve just heard on the radio?
The story is rooted in Jenkin’s experience of dispossessed working-class communities, scarred by unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion. A well-off London family has bought and gentrified ‘Skipper’s Cottage’, one of the harbourside cottages. They’ve installed a porthole as a window, filled the fridge with prosecco and pasta, bedecked the rooms with fishing buoys and nets, and rented out the net-loft to tourists who complain at the early morning noise of the fishing boats. The family is itself divided – thoughtful mother, smug father, flirtatious daughter, and boorish son.
The former inhabitant of the cottage is an impoverished fisherman who can’t afford to buy a boat. He lays nets on the beach outside the house to catch a few fish (bait), which he sells to the local pub for a high price, but gives to local families on the estate he now lives on. Throughout the film he simmers with barely contained rage at his inability to make a living any more from fishing, provoking (baiting) the rich incomers. ‘You didn’t have to sell us this house’, they tell him: ‘Didn’t I?’ is his sarcastic response.
His family is also divided. His brother still has a boat, though it’s used not for fishing but for coastal cruise trips for drunken tourists. But his brother’s son won’t work on the cruise boat, preferring to struggle like his uncle with the beach nets, and form a liaison with the rich family’s daughter.
These characters hit, miss and crash into each other in their houses, on the harbour and in the pub. Collaboration, confrontation, violence, and a tragic accident is the shocking outcome. A symbolic and yet also grittily realistic class struggle is played out in the film, in a nuanced, understated yet very powerful way.
None of the characters are happy in their own skin, except perhaps the daughter, who both symbolically and literally embraces both sides of this unhappy, class-divided community. A niggling, aggressive unhappiness and resentment pervades all the other characters, just like the shouting and discontent you’ve just heard on the TV news.
This story of alienation and anger is not told in the usual, straightforward narrative arcs of social realism employed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Its art owes more to Bertolt Brecht, the great socialist theatre-maker and poet. In order to clearly express his critique of the inhuman nature of capitalist society, and avoid the way living under capitalism taints the experience of artworks, Brecht developed various techniques which are used to great effect in Bait.
Just as Brecht always foregrounded the theatricality of his plays, Jenkin never lets us forget we’re watching a film. Visually, the film was made with hand-cranked cameras, like silent movies were made, then hand-processed into scratchy, lined images which are almost tactile in their materiality.
Aurally, the soundscape of the film stands out in a similar way. The dialogue has been recorded and dubbed onto the film, giving the uncomprehending, Pinteresque conversations an eerie atmosphere of alienation. Between the conversations there are hypnotic, rhythmic sounds, an underlying thump, thump – sometimes like the sea on the harbour wall, or the engines of the boats, or the wind, or the persistent tick of a clock. The effect of the sound design is both disturbing and reassuring, enhancing the tensions of the unfolding story.
The editing has a similarly disorienting and disturbing effect. The point of view switches from landscape or group shots to macro close-ups, taking us out of the story being told and into material reality. It can linger on objects, but also often moves violently fast between the characters’ clipped and sometimes comic exchanges, so that separate conversations appear to be in some kind of weird, surreal conversation of their own. Occasionally shots of scenes are shown in advance of their chronological place in the plot.
And finally, the ending of this amazing film is edited in a deliberately low-key, undramatic and workaday way. Does the ending give hope? Yes and no. We’re not a happy country, but we might be if we worked equally together. What do you want?
I don’t know what you want, but I do know that if you go to see this film, you will be prevented from suspending your disbelief and getting pleasure from immersing yourselves in an entertaining story. Instead, just like Brecht, Jenkin insists that you understand the issues at the heart of the film, and not be a passive consumer of a piece of entertainment. So in a sense the film itself is bait – for you.
All these ‘distancing’ techniques work together to express the alienation, conflicts and collaborations in modern British class-divided society. The Cornish fishing village is a microcosm of post-industrial, post-referendum life today all over this country, where the dispossessed many confront the privileged few. You won’t see a better film this year about what you’ve just heard on the radio, seen on the telly, and read in the newspapers.
£10 (plus £1.50 p. and p.) ISBN: 978-1-912710-14-0
Robots Have No Bones is Fred Voss’s follow-up collection to The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Your Hand, also published by Culture Matters.
Robots in the workplace – computerized metalworking machinery – mean a loss of the tactile impact of ‘working’ a machine tool. And workers are still pushed to breaking point, working long hours in poor conditions and always on the tightrope of the poverty line.
In a series of sympathetic, sometimes visionary poems, Voss takes us into the lives of the American working class, manual workers who have been betrayed by successive politicians. Technological advances like robots mean that that there is enough wealth being created for working people not to have to work so hard, for so long, and for so little – but capitalism makes that impossible.
Like the machine presses he writes about, Voss’s poems stamp in our minds the nature of capitalist work, and the way it dehumanizes us. They also remind us of the potentially revolutionary strength of working-class people, who remain undefeated in the fight with oppressive bosses, venal politicians, and the financial class whose avarice is as automatic, ingrained and inhuman as the robots they use to make profits.
Christopher Norris’s new collection of political poems take aim at some monsters of our present bad times, among them Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Theresa May, George Osborne, Benjamin Netanyahu, and assorted hangers-on.
These politicians act as if they have said to themselves, like Milton’s Satan, ‘Evil, be thou my good’. They are held to account here in verse-forms that are tight and sharply focused despite the intense pressure of feeling behind them. The satire is unsparing and the dominant tone is one of anger mixed with sorrow, compassion and a vivid sense of the evils and suffering brought about by corruptions of political office.
The influence of Brecht is visible throughout, as is that of W.H. Auden’s mordant verse-commentary on politics and culture in the 1930s, along with the great eighteenth-century verse-satirists Dryden, Pope and Swift.
Norris leaves the reader in no doubt that we now face a global, European and domestic neo-fascist resurgence. It won’t be defeated unless we act together to defeat these right-wing monsters.
A unique combination of political anger and poetic ingenuity
From Aberfan t Grenfell shows that Mike Jenkins’s sublime skills in dialect poetry continue to shine as brightly as ever, as he evokes a bravura array of voices from his Merthyr bro. Using his work to give speech to people without power, Jenkins’s poetry dramatizes the characters and struggles of a community – but also a community’s surviving capacity to raise its voices against the power-structures which cause it to suffer. Compassionate and incisive in equal measure, From Aberfan t Grenfell is required reading in an era of austerity.
- Professor Matthew Jarvis, Anthony Dyson Fellow in Poetry, University of Wales Trinity Saint David
These poems locate the poetry freighted in the rhythms and rhetorics of daily speech and everyday conversation, and subtly tool them up and sharpen their purposes with punchlines of dark wit, love and anger in equal measure. Superbly illuminated by Alan Perry’s artwork, this book shows that, in Mike Jenkins’ hands, poetry is not only an unflinching mirror but also a righteous hammer. - Robb Johnson, singer-songwriter
Alan Morrison’s Shabbigentile is a counterpoint to his Forward Prize-nominated Tan Raptures (Smokestack Books, 2017), many of its poems having been written during the same period and on complementary polemical themes. These range from the ominous economic stormclouds of the banking crash, and eight years of scarring austerity cuts, to the potentially catastrophic cross paths of ‘Brexit’, Trump and the insurgent European-wide right-wing populism of the present.
Shabbigentile is populated by assorted grotesques, memes and leitmotivs, distinctly native to the turbulent and polarised Noughteens: the sweatshop barista, the coffee bean Corbynista, the Dole Jude and Welfare Jew, the Five Giant Shadows and Five Evil Reverbs, and the homegrown ogre of the title.
These part-organic, part-figurative amalgams inhabit the wastelands of asset-stripped Britain, where Tory and red top propaganda against the unemployed is a scapegoating pseudo-science (Scroungerology), and the DWP’s weapons of brown envelopes are transposed as Salted Caramels. From such hostile environments we jump to the dystopian atmospherics of a post-Brexit tinpot RU-RI-TANNIA which sees Easter Island heads sprouting from the white cliffs of Dover.
Mike Quille reviews an exhibition of photographs of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside.
In honour of the shipyard workers of Tyneside, Chris Killip recently gave a set of over 30 stunning, monochrome images to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Last Ships exhibition of photographs, taken by Killip over just three years, captures the awe-inspiring scale and beauty of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside in the nineteen seventies. It documents the resilience but also the desolation of working-class communities, destroyed along with the industry by capitalist economic forces and government policy.
End of Shift
The large exhibition prints, with their striking, powerful images, dominate the walls of the gallery. The massive, sleek black hulls of tankers like the Tyne Pride, the biggest and also one of the last ships to be built on the Tyne, loom over the regular terraced streets where their builders lived. Children stand in doorways, dwarfed visually and protected economically by the vast bulk of newly-built ships. The confident, energetic geometry of angular industrial cranes seem to balance and guarantee the everyday, regular domesticity of workers’ houses. Those workers stream out of the shipyards, and their children play in the streets.
Wallsend Housing Looking East, 1975
Then suddenly, the industry and the community are destroyed. In the above photograph, Wallsend Housing Looking East (1975), Tyne Pride towers over a group of young girls playing at the end of Gerald Street. The photograph below, taken just two years later, Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977) shows the same street demolished. There are no large ships being built on the Tyne, no children playing in the streets – and no workers streaming out of shipyard gates. A few walls remain standing forlornly amidst the rubble, with spray-painted graffiti on them reading ‘DON’T VOTE. PREPARE FOR REVOLUTION’
Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977)
The exhibition is a fitting and just memorial to the lives, energy and strength of Tyneside workers – but it is also much more than that. Killip’s photographs document the productive force of capitalism, the monumental achievements of heavy industry and the close-knit proletarian communities created alongside it. And he also caught the bleak desolation resulting from de-industrialisation, from the sudden, brutal withdrawal of capital, and the historic – and ongoing – economic and social murder visited on Tyneside working-class communities by the rich and the powerful.
The exhibition thus sums up, in a particularly graphic and visually arresting way, a process which has affected most of the British population in one way or another for the last 50 years. It helps explain why so many people voted against the out-of-touch ruling elites of Westminster and Brussels, causing their current political chaos. Is it any wonder that our trust in them disappeared along with the industry, the jobs and the communities they destroyed?
Perhaps, then, we should vote AND prepare for revolution?
Ruses and Fuses, by Fran Lock with collages by Steev Burgess, is the follow-up collection to Muses and Bruises.
Fran Lock is one of the most prolific and outstanding poets out there today, fighting with her writing. Bristling with multi-bladed language and an anger born of compassion, she takes poetry in directions the mainstream dares not take.
Her first collection with Culture Matters, Muses and Bruises, brilliantly juxtaposed the lives of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, with a vivid, grotesque imagining of a grimy, glittery place called Rag Town, and the working-class girls who inhabit it.
In Ruses and Fuses, Fran Lock takes us to the rebellious, inspiring heart of English dissent with her portrayals of Levellers and Diggers such as Gerard Winstanley and Ned Ludd, and their fight with authorities over property rights. She also writes of witches, workingclass suffragettes, and the unsung, unlovable labours of working-class women. Her poetry conflates historical detail and present crisis to highlight both the continuation of violence against women, and the continuum of solidarity and sisterhood that exists despite this abuse.
Ruses and Fuses, like Muses and Bruises, is adorned with the poignant, sensitive collages of Steev Burgess.