What is History, Discuss?
“History is and was and so is that patch/ of pavement” begins 'What is History, Discuss?', the poem that opens Whatsname Street (Smokestack Books, 2021) by Anna Robinson. The collection provides an account of a Lambeth housing estate across the generations. It is a work that combines oral history, patient archival research, and deep sustained attention to the fleeting stuff of memory. In this poem, which I am sharing with you today, Robinson performs a gathering together of the fragmented and ephemeral “bits/ and bobs” from which we make a life. It is a history of remnants (“the loose change in my pocket”) and absences (“the fact that there is never any/ loose change in my pocket”). It is a working-class history.
By focussing on “that patch” of pavement, Robinson situates the reader within the poem. We see in real time what the speaker sees, the world, our world, mundane and material. This is the challenge implicit in Robinson's poem: we could occupy that patch of pavement; we could – and we do – occupy history. For working-class people this is a profound thought. History, as it has typically been taught and transmitted through neoliberal culture, positions poor and working people as a motiveless mass at the mercy of and subject to social and economic forces we can neither resist or comprehend. Robinson offers the poem as a place of retuned attention to the small and ordinary details of daily life. In doing so, the poem asks how we define history, and raises powerful questions about what – and who – is worthy of preservation.
The rich live on through their monuments, architectural and cultural. Buildings, statues, and street names all serve to capture the continuity of their lived experience, inscribing their memory onto public space; canonical art and literature archive and enshrine their histories and perspectives. They accumulate things, a legacy of silverware and fine china; leather-bound books and family portraits. These possessions come to constitute history: they're what museums are full of, just as literature is thick with their narratives, their ideas, their ideologies. How the rich lived and thought become naturalised as The Past.
Poor and working-class people have few enduring possessions, they have fewer opportunities to access art or literature and intervene in culture; they are excluded from the long posterity those things engender. How are their experiences to be stored or celebrated? This is where Robinson's poem is at its most radical; by evoking the perishable and the intangible (“a Brussels sprout”, “a bumble bee”, “a brown-tail moth”), the poem locates history elsewhere: vividly embodied, kept alive through word of mouth, through the sharing of our stories. The poem, like the Lambeth housing estate itself, is a layered, communal space. Unlike the mansions of the rich, history is not entombed there, it is created and negotiated. It is a continuing conversation.
'What is History, Discuss?' invites us to consider that what distinguishes working-class history from canonical history is its deep collective sensibility. Robinson's poetry does not create a monumental space, but a relational one. Perhaps there is no “History” as such, but a collection of vivid histories, plural, spun from the long threads of intergenerational memory.
Robinson's poem so struck me because history, and our place within it, has been much on my mind over the last few months. Participating in discussions at a number of working-class studies events, it has become clear to me that we are still grappling with what are frequently touted as these “unprecedented times”. I dislike that phrase intensely. Although our contemporary moment is chaotic and scary, it is hardly without precedent. It is, in fact, part of an endlessly repeating pattern. Our current crisis, reaching as it does across multiple axes of oppression – social, economic, ecological – does so in an acute causal relationship to capitalism. Where we are now is the logical conclusion to where we've been; it is the end result of prioritising money over the health of poor and working people, over our shared environment, our rights and our safety.
This is far from new: when a third of Europe's population was lost to the bubonic plague – itself spread through burgeoning channels of trade and military conquest – Europe's largest and wealthiest companies responded by concentrating their assets, allowing them to gain a greater share of the market and a deeper influence within governments. This historical situation has strong parallels to the mess we're in today: while struggling smaller businesses and individual persons in poverty must rely on the vanishingly scant support offered to them by the state and (more and more frequently) the charities that have all but replaced state assistance, large companies – mainly those involved in home delivery and contactless payment – are profiting greatly from the new trading conditions. It is the most vulnerable amongst us who suffer, whether in the Middle Ages or the twenty-first century.
Defusing challenges to the cultural status quo
What has also become clear to me is that there are few spaces within mainstream neoliberal discourse that openly discuss or acknowledge the recursive nature of working-class exploitation and suffering. Worse, there are precious few spaces that acknowledge the working classes at all. This is another of neoliberal culture's two-faced manoeuvres: the working class have no part in history, and yet we are routinely consigned to it. To be poor and working-class within neoliberal culture is to occupy the position of the absent subject. We are frequently told that the class system no longer exists, or our “credentials” as working-class people are continually questioned because we do not present as “typically” working-class according to tropes that others have invented about us.
Middle-class cultural elites filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic people, while refusing to acknowledge the role racism plays in the perception and treatment of white working-class others. Through a representational model of cultural inclusion these same elites select their working-class ambassadors to comfortably confirm existing tropes: the older white male from the industrial north, for example. These tropes, as they appear in poetry, are often characterised by a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or aesthetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status quo.
Martin Hayes' poem 'where are the working class now' from his most recent collection Underneath (Smokestack Books, 2021), takes this blinkered representation of class to task. As with Robinson's poem it opens with a challenge: “imagine if all of the workers in this city were white”. The first twelve stanzas are a list of working-class trades practised by non-white persons, from “the Uber driving Somalian cabbie” to the “Ghanaian road sweeper”. These short stanzas have an incantatory quality; they serve not only to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of working-class experience, but to emphasise just how fundamental these workers are to the operation of the city, any city, and to society at large. Each short stanza ends on the single word: “white”, performing an almost uncomfortable act of erasure that reflects the way in which the classed experiences of these workers is erased from history and within culture, even at the moment it is enacted.
The repeated refrain “imagine if” is both an invitation and a provocation. It extends to Hayes’ worker-subjects the space and consideration seldom afforded them as citizens. It also forces the reader into a confrontation with their own unconscious assumptions. It requires an enlarging of our world-view, our solidarity, our empathetic reach. In the final six stanzas, Hayes repeats the lines “who would/ then/ be able to split us/ apart/ see?” The lines themselves are split apart into short, jagged syllabic units, serving to create a tremendous amount of emphatic force. Each word is given its own weight, articulated like a fist thumped into a palm. The language is blunt, but it needs to be: this is important. It is also simple. If it feels complex or difficult, then that is a measure of just how successfully we have been divided. Hayes' use of both “imagine” and “see” is the necessary balance between close attention to material conditions, and the vision and the courage to picture them otherwise.
The poem ends with the question: do we see “why/ they did that?”, evoking the age-old divide and conquer tactics of moneyed power elites. There is rage in these lines, but there is also hope and defiance: disunity is not inherent or natural. If it was, they wouldn't have to work so hard to create it. Change begins with a simple act of recognition, an expression of class solidarity. When we acknowledge the class-based oppression of non-white persons our sense of history also expands; our history is intimately and vividly local, but it is also wide, networked, and global; multiple and intersecting.
Struggle and the UCS work-in
'Struggle' by Jim Aitken, the final poem I want to share with you today, echoes the hope and defiance of Hayes' piece. The poem was originally written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.C.S. (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) work-in. On July 31st 1971, over 8000 shipyard workers took possession of the four biggest shipyards on the Upper Clyde, to stage not a strike, but a work-in, organising and working together to run the yards themselves. Heath's Conservative government planned to close the shipyards, making 6,000 of the 8,500 shipyard workers employed by U.C.S. instantly redundant, and causing untold misery for their families and communities. So workers fought back, supported by marches, concerts, public collections and other fundraising activities. A support fund of nearly £250,000 was raised, and reports of workers' meetings were broadcast around the world. The work in continued into February and March of 1972, when the government reversed its decision not to support UCS.
This was a pivotal moment in the story of working-class resistance, so it is hardly surprising that it remains spectacularly unattended by mainstream historical discourse, or absorbed into a broader narrative of repression, fragmentation and failure within the labour movement. And yet our history survives. Reading Aitken's poem I was reminded that as a child, before I ever knew what the U.C.S. was, I could give you the chorus of the Matt McGinn song, 'Yes, yes, U.C.S.': “Yes, Yes, U.C.S./ Tell them on the radio, tell them on the press/ Want my job and I want no less/ No more dole day doldrums.” It is often through such subaltern cultural forms: the chant, the folksong, the poem, that our history persists and is handed on.
What is immediately striking about Aitken's poem is its focus not on explaining or detailing the U.C.S. work-in but in attending to the subjective and collective experience of the work-in for those within the labour movement. This is important because it challenges the implied audience for poetry. It tells us something of the social life of the poem, how it is to be circulated and shared, and by whom it is to be received. 'Struggle' has been published in the anthology A Rose Loupt Oot, in celebration and commemoration of the work-in; by the Scottish Socialist Party, and in Community Education newsletters. In addition to which it has been read at various events. It has a lively, politically engaged public life. It is not merely a place of preservation, but a site of potential reactivation, affirming and invigorating shared political commitments.
The poem proceeds slowly, in self-contained three-lined stanzas, each one encapsulating a difficult thought, as the speaker weighs their reasons for participating in the work-in. The “struggle” is not only a class struggle, fought in the shipyards, it is a mental and emotional struggle, a raising of consciousness that must begin within the self. I believe it is this negotiation between inner and external struggle that makes Aitken's poem so interesting and important. The fourth stanza of 'Struggle' marks a shift, a pivotal realisation that it is not whether the action is won or lost, but how it changes those within it, and inspires those who come after that matters. This is a brave and difficult thought. Social and political change are often slow. Our sense of ourselves as part of history must account for this fact, must reckon with the idea that we will not be the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts, but that we are links in a long chain. We do what we do not to secure a place in some dusty posterity for ourselves, but to make the living present better for future others.
In the fifth stanza Aitken uses simple but finely wrought organic imagery: “They awaken and grow/ like desert seeds/ receiving rain” which frames the experience of political solidarity as necessary, natural, and nourishing. What I find so affecting about this piece as a whole and this stanza in particular is its lack of clamour or aggression: “struggle” is understood first and foremost as an innate desire to live and to grow, and it happens in slow-time, across generations. It is as immediate and visceral as a strike or a work-in, but it is also the building up of movements over years, the seeding of ideas, the changing of minds. Again, the poem frames the actions and history of working-class people as part of a living and interconnected whole.
All of these poems complicate and extend our idea of what history might be, of what our history is. These poems show us that it is not a smooth progressive arc, but that it is entangled, recursive and complicated. It is also created by people within social contexts, not merely something we are subject to or excluded from. We are capable of making history as well as experiencing it. We are not only witnesses; we shape and tell our own stories. Although poor and working-class people have not typically been trusted to be the authors and archivists of our experiences, we carry within our communities and within ourselves an incredibly rich fund of memories and embodied knowledge. These memories and this knowledge surface within our poetry, which offers us an important place of infiltration into the historical record. Poetry also extends a space to others, offers a lens through which to apprehend the myriad networked connections between poor and exploited people globally.
A wise friend of mine recently told me that “history tells us the facts, poetry tells us how it feels”. If we are to understand our own history, we need testimony as much as we need evidence, and poetry combines these facets more than any other art form. In the last decade or so, working-class histories have increasingly become the objects of study, but through poetry and song they also have the potential to be the means of resistance, to strike a light for others.
What is History, Discuss?
by Anna Robinson
History is and was and so is that patch
of pavement where one tiny leaf shape
is never wet no matter how much rain.
It’s in the shards of clay pipes on the banks
of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments.
It’s in the loose change in my pocket
and the fact that there is never any
loose change in my pocket. It’s in the bits
and bobs, the fairy on the rock cake,
at the foot of our stairs. It’s t’ick
as a coddle and mild as milk.
There’s a king and queen and offspring
and they’re effing and blinding or not –
‘cause that’s common! It’s in the darkness,
the rose moon, a clear deep navy sky
and a box of Price’s candles to light
the longest street market in London
where we ply, plight and sing a bit.
It’s in the pain of home and the urge
to command that pain with real true facts.
It is what it is, although that’s contentious.
It’s a bumble bee, a Brussels sprout,
and sometimes, even, a brown-tail moth.
Reprinted with kind permission of Smokestack Books
where are the working class now
by Martin Hayes
where are the working class now
by Martin Hayes
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
the Uber driving Somalian cabbie
the Filipino nanny
the Columbian cleaner
the Brazilian courier
the Nigerian traffic warden
the Afghan phone repair stall owner
the Indian corner shop owner
the Thai manicurist
if all of the workers in this city were white
the Lebanese kebab seller
the Syrian car washer
the Ghanaian road sweeper
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
be able to split us
why they did that
said often enough
could separate us
if the colour of our blood
and the stench of our sweat
was more important
than the colour of our skin
be able to split us
they did that?
Reproduced with kind permission of Smokestack Books
by Jim Aitken
Not to certainly means
To engage in action
even if you lose
means dignity at least.
It also means
just could mean
that you actually win.
But it’s more than that
for in the process
They awaken and grow
like desert seeds
And give to others
a sense of vision
and possible dreams.
Anna Robinson's publications include Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye, 2006), The Finders of London (Enitharmon, 2010) – shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize – Into the Woods (Enitharmon, 2014) and Night Library (Stonewood, 2015). She teaches at the University of East London.
Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His books include Letting Loose the Hounds (2001), When We Were Almost Like Men (2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (2018), Where We Get Magic From (2021), Ox (2021), and most recently Underneath (2021)
Jim Aitken is a poet, dramatist and essayist. He also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh and works with the Council's Outlook programme for people with mental health issues. He has several literary and cultural essays on the Culture Matters website. In 2020 he edited A Kist of Thistles: radical poetry from Scotland and in 2021 edited a companion prose version called Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift. Both books are published and available here.