Jonathan Edwards reviews Nobody's Subject, a new poetry collection from Mike Jenkins.
I write this two days before the latest round of elections for the Welsh Assembly Government. As usual, I have little notion on which way to vote. Left-leaning by family and inclination, much of the literature I most love, from Robert Tressell’s absolutely astonishing The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, to Alan Sillitoe, George Orwell and Tony Harrison, wears its political heart firmly on its sleeve. My nan, who was about the mildest-mannered person anyone could ever wish to meet, would curse and kick the air every time she saw Maggie Thatcher’s perm on the TV. My dad once gave Neil Kinnock a lift to work. Yet I came of age in the 90s, and the first election I could vote in was the one in which Tony Blair became Prime Minister. So for almost all my voting life the Labour Party hasn’t really been the Labour Party. Who were the left-wing party of the noughties? For a few elections, I alternated voting for the Communist Party, when a candidate ran, with voting for the Monster Raving Loony Party.
The re-emergence of Labour as a genuine left-wing party, the debates around Europe and devolution, and the particular sense of what it means to be Welsh as we move towards the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Welsh Assembly Government, make this a fertile time in Wales to discuss politics. And who better to do it than Mike Jenkins, whose passionate and heartfelt political poems have been setting light to audiences at readings and in schoolrooms for decades? One of my favourite poems in his latest collection, Nobody’s Subject, is ‘Abandon the Valleys,’ an angry and satirical critique of the argument – which currently has some currency among some economists – that the answer to the South Wales Valleys having outlived their industries is simply to move everyone out, regardless of the communities, the families, the sense of identity:
ABANDON THE VALLEYS
Let’s all abandon the Valleys
so they can turn them into an industrial museum,
a theme park of past glories
they could drown every one
and it would make Tryweryn
seem a piddling puddle by comparison
they could leave it to the animals,
bring back the wolves and wild cats
and let the adventure-tourists loose
they could cultivate market towns
with lots of cutesy craft shops,
places peopled only by Groggs
let’s abandon the Valleys,
they’ve outgrown their uses;
let opencast prevail without protest
let all those wasted Valleys folk
move coastward to the cities;
it’ll be like one long Saturday
let’s all abandon the Valleys
to the march of conifers and SAS training courses,
shift every building to St. Fagan’s.
One solution which has been proposed to the situation of the Valleys of course is the Circuit of Wales racetrack, which is due to be built in Ebbw Vale. Whatever the outcome of the Assembly elections, one hopes that the Assembly’s problems in terms of backing what looks to be a wonderful project for the regeneration of the area can be resolved.
Politics is such a passion for Mike that he has inevitably passed this on to his family. One of my favourite poems from his previous wonderful collection, Shedding Paper Skin, was Niamh’s rocket, a brilliant poem of fatherhood. By the same token, one of the most affecting poems in Nobody’s Subject explores Mike’s relationship with his daughter, the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Bethan Jenkins. What a wonderfully moving portrait this is:
You’re the politician I could never become:
giving speeches off the cuff,
devoted to your party like a second family,
while I’m on the outside
raising a fist and chanting.
Not that we didn’t get things done:
defeated the poll tax by civil disobedience,
mobilised thousands into doing something
by simply doing nothing,
till the bailiffs came knocking;
defeated the opencast when many
in my village declared – ‘You'll never win!’
But you – on radio, tv, committee meetings
and in the Senedd’s chamber,
leafletting on streets, addressing campaigns –
are what a politician should be.
Those Visteon pensioners even called you
their ‘Joanna Lumley’ and how funny
comparing you with such a toff luvvie.
I recall pushing you in a buggy
miles over the mountain in tamping rain
to Bevan’s Stones to protest
against unemployment in Thatcher’s days;
a speech by Dafydd El (once darling of the Left);
afterwards, Lord Dafydd Ellis Thomas
who sat and presided so haughtily.
That Assembly is and is not your workplace:
factories, doorsteps and schools
are the places where you thrive
with a vision of possibilities
beyond walls’ slogans, on a skyline
within reach for everyone.
Like family, another thing that goes hand in hand with politics in the Valleys is music. One has only to look at one of our most recent music icons, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, to know this. Mike has a keen interest in music, is a mean harmonica player in performance, and Nobody’s Subject has a number of poems about music, including ‘The Great Unsigned’ and ‘Whistle Test Fridays.’ The inheritance of the protest song is clear in a number of the collection’s poems, including ‘Fairwood Drive,’ or this cutting portrayal of the treatment of those living in the Credit Crunch Valleys:
NO BOOM, JUST BUST
Never seen a Boom in Merthyr
we’ve only ever seen Bust;
Government stats say it’s getting better
as we scrabble for a crust.
We’ll be back to searching
for lumps of coal on the hillsides;
Pound and Charity shops and Pawnbrokers
are the ones who thrive.
Get a job in the Retail Park,
get a zero contract or minimum wage,
stats claim there’s loads of work........
you’ll have to move to London to live.
They’ve cut all the benefits
like lopping off our limbs
and next come the Council cuts
making our brain-cells rust.
Cameron and Osborne claim it’s improving
and they’ve got the numbers to prove it;
tricking us with figures like loan sharks,
while debts are screaming the opposite.
Before committing himself full-time to writing, Mike was a secondary school teacher for decades, and he remains passionate about education, always looking for opportunities to help and support young writers. I’ve been lucky enough to get Mike to come to the school I work at for an inspiring workshop, and one of the most exciting pieces of radio I’ve heard in the past few years was his interview on the Jason Mohammad show on Radio Wales recently, when he made a passionate case for the importance of Literature as a GCSE subject. Here he is, in Nobody’s Subject, on the position of teachers:
NOBODY TRUSTS THE TEACHERS
Nobody trusts the teachers:
the Redtops blurt tales
of disgrace and sexual antics.
Politicians repeat about failures
and send in the trouble-shooters;
Councils threatened with Commissioners.
Teams of Inspectors invade schools
and deliver their damning judgments.
Heads ambush their lessons
armed with forms and tick-boards.
Parents e-mail to complain
about behaviour, results and testing.
Even the pupils....yes, even them,
after they’ve heard their parents moaning
as they read newspapers, watch television.
So the teachers don’t trust themselves
to ponder, plan, encourage and inspire;
with all that spying vision.
From the satirical to the familial, the angry to the affecting, from the gritty to the musical, from economics to education, Nobody’s Subject is a timely and essential collection whichever way you lean, whoever’s name you place an X next to when you’re in a polling booth, hopeful as someone who’s marking the place on a map where treasure is buried.
Nobody's Subject is published by BBTS Publications, 2016, £5.