Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison is a Brighton-based poet and editor of The Recusant, and Militant Thistles.

Baked Alaska
Saturday, 09 January 2021 09:08

Baked Alaska

Published in Poetry

Baked Alaska

by Alan Morrison

Emperor Trump's mob took him at his word,
Stormed the Capitol, seat of American democracy,
Vandals sacking Rome, Spartans spilling into Athens,
Barbarians at the gates in red baseball caps branded
With the legend: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
Barbarians from within, chanting empty mantras
And chauvinistic rhetoric - "Stop the Steal!"
Amongst the gold-braided Vikings and buffalo-horned
Visigoths, one key agitator known by the moniker
Of 'Baked Alaska', an Alt Right conspiracy theorist,
Real name Anthime "Tim" Gionet, who set about
Trying to prove how fragile American democracy
Actually is when push comes to shove and there's
A lot of shoving, punching, shooting - that the Capitol
Could be, at least symbolically, crushed like meringue,
Shattered glass and debris litter the east steps
It was simply too good an opportunity to miss
For White Supremacists and shadowy Far Right groups
To gather together in broad Washington daylight
And march on that impertinent neoclassical building
Whose wedding-cake dome overpowered its own
Porticos, as it did their rust-belt hopes - how dare
That building pay host to the temerity of representative
Democracy when it didn't represent them,
The Sunburnt White Privileged, Rednecks, Confederates -
A president coaxing his supporters into insurrection,
We're going to walk down Pennsylvania Ave - I love
Pennsylvania Avenue - and we're going to the Capitol -
Only no we're about it: the perma-tanned rabble-rouser
Would be safely tucked behind his Oval Office desk,
Orange thumb poised on Twitter - it would be They,
His underlings, Myrmidons, remote-controlled thugs
Who in one brief afternoon would storm the Capitol,
Overpower the seemingly powerless police, and attempt
To smash up American democracy as easily
As crushing a meringue, too tempting an opportunity
To pass up, too much of a coup, a scoop - that Capitol
Dome sat there impertinently like a Baked Alaska
Seemed in need of some caramelising,
Just long enough to tan and tarnish its exterior
Without completely melting its ice-cream insides...

Beak Doctors
Friday, 01 May 2020 09:10

Beak Doctors

Published in Poetry

Beak Doctors

by Alan Morrison

We're wandering about by day
Keeping each other at bay
Some of us wearing face masks
Carrying out our daily tasks
Of getting some shopping in
Without touching anything -
Wiping down the supermarket baskets
With disinfectant
Like over-scrupulous neurotics
Or priests polishing communion cups

(One wonders if those orange tops
Will ever be back in the shops)

Meanwhile pinstripes in Whitehall
Are beginning to doubt all
Their weird science, Sage guidance,
"Herd immunity", nudge units -

27,000 souls departed and counting -
It's a strange kind of social engineering
Wearing down the generations' engines -

Is it the underequipped nurses
And sacrificial carers
Or the newly departed we're supposed to be clapping?

Is this virus really a leveller
Or simply a revealer?

Our enemy is invisible,
But then it always is, as is evil,
As is the longest serving visitation
That ever descended on this nation:
The Conservative virus -
For which there's never been a vaccination -

Ironic socialism
Of Keynesian economics
Tories can only countenance
If they don't have to see the consequence

We are all anchorites now

We must keep apart to keep together

(Apart from the unemployed
Who are encouraged to be fruit pickers)

And in this strange transparent plague
The shape of our salvation's vague
But a shadow proctor
The grotesque shape of a beak doctor
Pecking at the buttercups
Pecking at the buttercups

The buttercups in meadows

Knight of the Gutter
Monday, 20 January 2020 19:34

Knight of the Gutter

Published in Poetry

Knight of the Gutter

(aka Iain Duncan Smith's Got a Knighthood)

by Alan Morrison

The media smeared Jeremy Corbyn for good,
Ensured a catastrophic election result,
A thumping majority for Boris's cult,
And Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

The real change we needed exchanged for gnarled wood
Of Parliament's ingrained gig-hegemony,
Members be branded the blue mob's enemy,
And Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

The unemployed doomed to eat more humble pud,
The disabled damned to more brutal assessments,
Food bank queues lengthening, parks filled with tents,
But Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

Schoolchildren fainting in classrooms who should
Be hungering for knowledge not scavenging bins
To nibble at apple cores like waifs from Dickens,
Whilst Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

Working poor parcels of processed tinned food,
Parents on fasts so their kids get the gruel,
Universal Credit's architecture's still cruel,
But Iain Duncan Smith's got a knighthood.

 

The election: Statement by 117 poets in support of the Labour Party
Monday, 02 December 2019 09:57

The election: Statement by 117 poets in support of the Labour Party

Published in Cultural Commentary

Statement By 115 Poets in Support of the Labour Party

We, the undersigned, representing a section of the poetry community, pledge our support to the Labour Party in the upcoming general election because we want to see its radically transformative and compassionate manifesto come into effect. The manifesto shows a commitment to social justice and equality not only in its comprehensive policies of state support for consumers and producers of the arts and culture generally, but also in its social and economic policies to support working people, including:

An end to austerity and the ideological attack on our welfare state
An end to the malicious work capability assessments of the sick and disabled and PIP
An end to the political scapegoating of the unemployed
An end to the two child benefit cap
An end to discriminatory rhetoric at the dispatch box
An end to the "hostile environment" for immigrants and refugees
An end to rough sleeping
An end to zero-hour contracts
An end to unpaid internships
An end to tuition fees
An end to creeping privatisation of the NHS

We want to see these Labour policies implemented:

A National Education Service
A National Care Service
A Universal Basic Income Pilot
A reintroduction of private rent controls and greater rights for renters
A restitution of Legal Aid
Free prescriptions in line with Scotland and Wales
A green industrial revolution
A culturally transformative Charter for the Arts
A Race and Faith manifesto

Signatories:

Keith Armstrong
Anne Babson
Bruce Barnes
Christopher Barnes
Amy Evans Bauer
Bob Beagrie
Brian Beamish
Peter Branson
Jane Burn
Gale Burns
Lesley Burt
David Cain
Ushiku Crisafulli
Andy Croft
Alan Dent
Matt Duggan
Steve Ely
Dr Naomi Foyle
Harry Gallagher
Owen Gallagher
Raine Geoghegan
Harry Gilonis
Prof John Goodby
Maria Gornell
Chris Gutkind
John G. Hall
Colin Hambrook
Chip Hamer
Emma Hammond
Robert Hampson
Oz Hardwick
Bruce Harris
Martyn Hayes
Kevin Higgins
Clare Hill
Luke Hoggarth
Bernadette Horton
Keith Howden
Zekria Ibrahimi
Andy Jackson
Kevin N. Jelf
Nicholas Johnson
Fred Johnston
Strider Marcus Jones
Tom Kelly
David Kessel
Mark Kirkbride
S.J. Litherland
Fran Lock
Marilyn Longstaff
Hannah Lowe
Rupert Loydell
Chris McCabe
Niall McDevitt
Rachel McGladdery
John McKeown
James Mainland
Caroline Maldonado
Char March
Dez Mendoza
Rob Miles
Christopher Moncrieff
Stephen Mooney
Alan Morrison
Graham Mort
John Muckle
Pete Mullineaux
Mark Murphy
Nicholas Murray
Chris Nash
Christopher Norris
Dr John O'Donoghue
Clive Oseman
Antony Owen
Ben Parker-Jones
Ian Parks
Tom Pickard
Steph Pike
Mair De-Gare Pitt
Winston Plowes
Dr David Pollard
Steve Pottinger
Alan Price
Prof John Quicke
Mike Quille
Frank Rafferty
Peter Raynard
Sally Richards
Karl Riordan
Lisa Rossetti
Anne Rouse
Dave Russell
Bernard Saint
Stephen Sawyer
John Scott
John Seed
John Short
Ken W. Simpson
Fiona Sinclair
Richard Skinner
Linus Slug
Barry Smith
Geoff Smith
Theresa Sowerby
Steve Spence
David Stoker
Peter Street
Paul Summers
Dr Andrew Taylor FRSA
Laura Taylor
Angela Topping
Ruth Valentine
Jo Walton
Rob Walton
Stephen Watts
Merryn Williams
Gareth Writer-Davies
Wendy Young

Co-ordinated by Alan Morrison (The Recusant) and Mike Quille (Culture Matters Co-operative Ltd), December 2019.

The election: England in 2019
Wednesday, 27 November 2019 22:34

The election: England in 2019

Published in Poetry

England in 2019
After Shelley

By Alan Morrison

A nonagenarian white-gloved Queen
Grimaces assent to her sixth cousin twice
Removed, now prime minister number fifteen
Of her longest reign resigned (but no
Signs of resigning) and only the second
To whom she's related: a recently seen
Trend entrenching, another silver-spooned
Sprout of nepotism in our ermined
Democracy undermined, spliced
Together in unlikely embrace,
A pattern's setting in: Eton-Oxford-Westminster -
Unspoken hereditary principle whispers
In our wood-panelled parliamentary politics -
The Remembrancer marks the shaking mace;
Of course, we're reminded Her Majesty
Is constitutionally bound to take advice,
For her royal prerogative is purely symbolic;
But who'd have thought in the bicentennial
Year of Peterloo's protest for suffrage,
Parliamentarians would crowd around
The Speaker's Chair in protest against
The clamping of their representative voices
By a government gone rogue to prorogue
On the flimsiest of pretexts, shut
The portcullis at a point when it's most
Required to speak, be outspoken as spikes
(MPs are more than just delegates);
Just as in 1629 King Charles
The First claimed divine right, and, in turn,
Gleaned regicide... (or is this all a strange
Phantasmagoria projected by
Nostalgic Jacob Rees-Mogg languishing
Along green benches, upper-class puss
Of the Commons in human form, hands
Clasped across the broad lapels of his
1940s-style bespoke suit jacket,
His pudding-crop propped up on the carved
Wooden edge, feigning forty winks
Of contempt for the House of which he is
Leader and Dreamhead...?)... Now another
Entitled Etonian, an oratorical Nero
Bloated on hubris, braggadocio,
Rodomontade (vocabulary Bercow),
Has his premiership imposed upon us by
90,000 blue-rinsed Tory members,
Little Englanders, Daily Mail and Express-
Thumping xenophobes, a prime minister-
Cum-tin pot despot specially licensed
To clamp our democracy, have it silenced,
Because sovereignty is not something
To take lightly, it's a double-edged thing...

 

National Poetry Day: Phineus and the Quest for Personal Independence Payment
Thursday, 03 October 2019 08:37

National Poetry Day: Phineus and the Quest for Personal Independence Payment

Published in Poetry

Phineus and the Quest for Personal Independence Payment

by Alan Morrison

Episode One: Phineus Among the Harpies

The appeal was refused by the tribunal, the tribunal numbered
Three: an insouciant judge, a glacial lawyer, and a GP
Who wilfully misinterpreted him, pinned him at cross-purposes,
Kept making a point of his insight and articulacy -
Qualities going against his case, as if to imply the mentally
Afflicted must be stupid, when it's almost always the opposite case,
Her assumption that intelligence bestows prolific phrenic
Equipment to cope with any symptom of mind, even
The ego-dystonic, a term he'd picked up from some foxed
Blue-spined Pelican (pain makes its own experts), attempting
To explain the impetus of Pure Obsessional Disorder:
That it matters not one whit whether he would act on his
Intrusive thoughts, present risk, this bore no relevance
To the intensity of distress, the inexorable anxiety
Rooted in uncertainty, ever-mutating symptomatology,
A mind besieged by obsessions*; something about him caused
Them umbrage, the three 'impartial' panel members, apparently
'Independent' from Independent Assessment Services
(Atos formerly), and the DWP; pernickety Harpies
Handpicked for nitpicking pedantry, pecking at the scraps of his
Incapacity - he, hapless Phineus, half-crippled by phobias;
Supposed experts deciding his entitlement, or not,
To Personal Independence Payment (PIP (excuse the parentheses));
They even used his avoidance behaviours to argue that he was
High-functioning in spite of therapists' emphases that these
Repetitious rituals are symptoms not coping mechanisms
That retard healing of psychical scars; he might have quoted
Kierkegaard, something along the lines that all the torments
Of the damned pale in comparison to anxiety: excoriating
Guilt of the innocent, gut-aching angst** in the absence of an act
(Hamletic hesitation), spent nerves of no event, but that
Would have also gone against him - as it did that he went
To university, and, more intrusively, that creative writing
Was his 'hobby' (how suburban that sounded!) which makes him
Probably a bit bohemian, thus unreliable, rebellious, anti-
Establishment, and while he might convince as an idiot savant,
He'd obviously been embroidering the truth to a more threadbare brocade
When claiming he was number-blind, they pointed out he'd
Have had to tackle statistics while studying Sociology -
Not as far as he could recall, but in any case he'd later changed
To Ancient History... At school it took until he was fourteen
To see what the clock face had so long been trying to tell him,
A lightning-struck Damascene of horology! Now Old Chronos
Could no longer cock a snook - a little death erupted in him then,
A peripheral epiphany, still trapped in fight or flight of tick -
Tock neuroticism permanently ruminating on past and future,
Never mentally in the present, temporally absent, but at last
Able to tell the time without having to guess, now everything
Pressed more urgently, reassurance at least in grasping
That suffering was time-limited as contribution-based benefits.

* This is a tautology: the Latin root obsessus means besieged.
** From the Latin: angere: to choke.

 

Kipling Buildings
Monday, 10 September 2018 08:18

Kipling Buildings

Published in Poetry

Kipling Buildings

With some debt to Rudyard Kipling's 'If'

by Alan Morrison

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are spy cameras, a deliberate delay
Of the appointment time in an attempt
To break your spirit, a protracted wait
In a claustrophobic, clinical-looking room,
A neutrally decorated purgatory
Silent except for the rumbling water cooler,
Being observed by unseen deciders
Prolonging your agony in a pot-plant garden...

If you can keep your head during a gruelling
Interrogation at Independent Assessment
Services (formerly Atos Solutions),
Being asked trick questions, being observed,
Recorded, monitored, not being listened to,
Only heard, not being respected or
Empathised with, but being judged
In an unacknowledged kangaroo court
Of icy stares and sporadic mouse-clicks
For each of the ticks in the boxes on
The assessor's screen turned away from you
So you can't see – while being observed
Just as a troubled adolescent by
A cryptic psychiatrist's invisible observers
Behind two-way glass; these desk-perched
Harpies who prey on the sick and disabled
For sport, will pick off your weak points
And press all your buttons to get the most
Pool-muddying responses to cloud your claim...

If you can keep your PIP when all about you
Are losing theirs, it'll only be a pyrrhic
Victory, a temporary reprieve, just putting off
The inevitable sting of a future trap-sprung
Reassessment, opportunity for symptom-
Tampering and a spot of goalpost-changing
To ensure next time you're lower scoring...

If you can keep your nerve at Atos
Assessment Services nestled deep
In the grey, mauve and periwinkle plush
Of Kipling Buildings poorly disguised
As a clinic but whose commercial shape
And façade indicate that a bank once operated
There, on the corner of a nondescript street
In an unexplored part of Portsmouth,
Then you will be damned, my son,
Damned with a disability, but worse,
An invisible one, and the points you'll score
Will be in binary numbers – the price
For their bounties, their thirty pieces...

 This poem was one of the winning entries in the 2018 Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite.

Grenfell Engulfed
Friday, 23 June 2017 11:41

Grenfell Engulfed

Published in Poetry

Grenfell Engulfed

In memory of those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire

by Alan Morrison

In spite of recent refurbishments – fireproofed? –
Grenfell Tower was engulfed in flames the full length
Of its eyesore height ringed by brown-brick mansion blocks
(Much better Thirties relics of curvaceous art deco);
Now Grenfell Tower is a blackened jagged tooth
On the smoking skyline – but still, by night, a whole day after
The main blaze, orange flames flickered from inside
Like the glows from pumpkin lamps lit up at Halloween parties –
And those broken charred windows now glare
Like the zigzagged grimaces of pumpkins' carved mouths,
Once the candles have been snuffed out in their hollowed pulps.

This gutted, lugubrious building burnished black is now
Nothing more than a charnel house, those still missing
Among its tenants now presumed consumed in smoke,
Burnt out of their tenancies, cremated in their flats, no
Spontaneous combustion of a faulty fridge alone
Could have caused such rapid conflagration – no, those
Refurbishments last year had not been properly fireproofed,
In fact, were done more for external aesthetics
Than for the benefit of the residents' wellbeing or safety,
Simply to prettify the outside of the towerblock
To blend better in with its salubrious surroundings
Of the rich part of Kensington – well now the tower
Has been prettified by fire, Kensington's well-rinsed
Can survey, instead, a fuming burnt offering, a black
Smouldering monument in Brutalist anthracite,
A colossal sooty cactus scorched in the hottest June
Since '76 (when millions of ladybirds coated Brighton beach).

Landlords, maintenance agents, Tory councillors and Tory
MPs had unknowingly conspired to lay in place
The components for a catastrophe predicted by the Tenants’
Association, their complaints and warnings ignored by
The men in grey suits at Westminster, and at Kensington
And Chelsea Council – why would any authority listen to the concerns
Of social housing tenants with no stakes in anything,
Not even the right to justice, courtesy of legal aid cuts,
600 impoverished people cooped up in high-piled compartments,
Many trapped on benefits through no faults of their own,
Or caught in the Russian roulette of zero-hours contracts,
Reliant on food banks, many Arabs, Muslims, immigrants,
Asylum-seekers and refugees among their numbers,
Those whose lives are deemed verboten by tabloids,
Now their homes more than metaphorically put to the Tory
Torch – hindsight haunts Kensington: outside sprinklers
Could have been retrofitted, should have been, in fact.

Now after the flames, the blame games: whose gross
Negligence lit this tinder box, what cultural drift of anti-
Immigrant rhetoric ignited the match? The flammable
Padding in the new zinc cladding apparently helped the flames
Catch! The yellow helmets say they've never seen anything
Like this before... The tower protrudes as a combustible
Symbol of the vulnerability of the disadvantaged,
Never have so many people perished for a metaphor,
The surviving tenants are spitting tar, now homeless,
Will they be given permanent shelter? Some survivors
Voice fears that Kensington and Chelsea Council
Will take advantage of the tragedy to decant the tenants
Elsewhere and refurbish the tower block (and properly
Fireproof it this time, presumably) to house better-heeled
Private tenants – Grenfell gentrified by fire? The arms-
Length maintenance organisation might have a hand
In this, more profits for future, while tight-lipped ministers
Of an arms-length Government avoid the gazes
Of camera lenses, mute in suits; and a spineless
Prime Minister is photographed skulking awkwardly in black
Among the uniforms, looking like the rich distant
Relative at the funeral keeping apart from her mourning
Poor relations; while Jeremy Corbyn responds more promptly,
Goes among the families of the missing, comforting them,
Hugging those who are denied even the vent of grieving
For not yet knowing if their bereavement is temporary
Or permanent, surviving relatives who catch on the grapevine
Of drip-fed information that the bodies still inside
Might be so badly burnt they'll not be able to be identified –
Forced out by fire, is this how Grenfell's gentrified?

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate
Sunday, 26 March 2017 17:38

Poetry, Unemployment and the Welfare Hate

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison introduces his latest poetry collection, and calls for submissions for his latest anthology of political poetry.

After seven years of what might be termed the ‘welfare hate’, with over 80,000 deaths (and suicides) among sick and disabled claimants between 2011-14, approximately 2,380 within six weeks of the DWP and Atos declaring them “fit for work”, it is only in recent months that the British pathology of what I term ‘Scroungerology’ has shown vague signs of a pausing for thought.

Undoubtedly some factors contributing to this latter cultural hiatus are the United Nations report condemning the Coalition and Tory Governments’ abuses of disability rights through disability-targeted benefit cuts, and veteran social-realist director Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or and BAFTA-winning film intervention, I, Daniel Blake (in some ways a polemical update on Jim Allen and Roland Joffé’s superlative The Spongers, broadcast 1978, which juxtaposes the story of a single mother and her children targeted by punitive disability benefit cuts against the backdrop of the taxpayer-funded Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and which is more than ripe for repeat).

These have come as timely reinforcements to several veteran campaigns –Disabled People Against the Cuts, the Spartacus Report, the Black Triangle Campaign, Calum’s List et al – that have fought valiantly over the past seven years to put the catastrophic impact of the disability cuts in the public domain, in spite of the DWP and a complicit mainstream media’s best efforts to ‘bury’ such issues.

Nevertheless, we have a long way to go politically and attitudinally as a society until we can wrestle back some semblance of a compassionate and tolerant welfare state which looks after the poor, unemployed, disabled and mentally afflicted, and without recourse to stigmatisation and persecution. The front line of ‘scroungermongering’ is the thick red line of the right-wing red tops, most heinously the Daily Express, and, of course, every English person’s favourite hate rag, the Daily Mail – the ubiquitous negative drivers of most public opinion.

To be on benefits today, no matter what one’s personal circumstances or disadvantages, is almost a taboo, and one exploited ruthlessly by the makers of such televisual effluence as Benefits Street, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, and the reprehensibly titled Saints and Scroungers (one campaigner, Sue Marsh, has tried to re-appropriate that dreadful term on her admirably defiant Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog).

In spite of a faint sense of relief felt across the unemployed and incapacitated communities at new Work and Pensions Secretary Damien Green’s announcement that there will be no more welfare cuts beyond those already legislated, there is still cause for trepidation when said legislated cuts of £30 per week to new Employment and Support Allowance claims kick in this April – certainly, then, ‘the cruellest month’ this year.

By something of a coincidence, my next poetry collection, precisely on the theme of the welfare and disability cuts and the stigmatisation of the unemployed, Tan Raptures, is published by Smokestack Books on 1 April.

Tan Raptures gathers together poems composed during the past six years of remorseless benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation. Some of it is from an empirical perspective, my having been for much of this period in the ‘Work-Related Activity Group’ (or ‘WRAG’ as it’s disparagingly abbreviated) of Employment and Support Allowance, where those who are deemed unfit for work for the time being but not necessarily permanently are placed (I am a lifelong sufferer of pure obsessional disorder, an unpredictable and debilitating form of OCD). This has been punctuated by sporadic paid opportunities (termed ‘permitted work’ or ‘therapeutic earnings’ by the DWP) in poetry mentoring, tutoring and commissions.

Poetry and unemployment often go hand-in-hand, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, since writing poetry is a form of occupation (alongside editing it, publishing it, teaching it, mentoring it, workshopping it etc.), even if an often impecunious one as paid opportunities are few and far between. Indeed, the fact that poetry has very little ‘market value’, and employment or occupation in capitalist society is almost entirely defined in terms of earning money, almost all full-time poets are, paradoxically, ‘unemployed’; at least, in purely superficial material terms. Through the sadly seldom-consulted prism of humanistic occupational theory, poetry is certainly an ‘occupation’ in the authentic sense of the term.

Many poets have been unemployed at points in their careers albeit ‘poetically employed’ at the same time. Indeed, unemployment is often an ‘occupational hazard’ of being a poet, and many either still are, or certainly have been in the past, intermittent benefit claimants. Capitalism has no time for poets since it deems them unprofitable and economically unproductive (in any case, it has their occupational replacements: advertising copywriters).

This is in stark contrast to the stipends paid by the state in the old Soviet Union specifically to keep poets in their poetry (a similar scheme would be most welcome here today). The sometimes inescapable relationship between poetry and unemployment – bards on the dole – is almost never spoken let alone written about by poets. Poetry and unemployment are unspoken companions. But many poets will stifle a bitter laugh at the notion of a Department for Waifs and Poets (DWP).

In Tan Raptures I refer to the DWP as the ‘Department for War on the Poor’, since that is undoubtedly its primary purpose today. The collection includes polemical paeans to many victims of the Tory benefits cuts and sanctions, such as Glaswegian playwright Paul Reekie (suicide), ex-soldier David Clapson (death from diabetic complications/malnutrition), and the Coventry soup-kitchen-dependent couple, the Mullins (suicide).

The eponymous polemical poem is an Audenic dialectic in 14 cantos on the social catastrophe of the benefits caps, pernicious red-top “scrounger” propaganda, and Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic six year grip at the DWP. It is also a verse-intervention of Social Catholicism, as epitomised by Pope Francis, in oppositional response to the “appalling policies” (Jeremy Corbyn) of self-proclaimed ‘Roman Catholic’ Duncan Smith.

The title Tan Raptures plays on the biblical notion of ‘The Rapture’ – the ‘raising up’ of living and dead believers to meet their maker in the sky – satirising the ubiquitous ‘tan envelopes’ that strike fear into claimants on a daily basis as passports to a twisted Tory notion of ‘moral salvation’ through benefit sanction.

So common has this phenomenon become that the phrase ‘fear of the brown envelope’ now denotes a recognised phobic condition, and was even used as the first part of a title for an academic paper on exploring welfare reform with long-term sickness benefits recipients’ (Garthwaite, K., 2014).

It is my hope that Tan Raptures will play its part in keeping up the momentum of the belatedly emerging counter-cultural welfare narrative as championed by the likes of Ken Loach, and, of course, Labour’s first socialist leader in decades, Jeremy Corbyn, who put it firmly on record that he opposes any open discrimination against the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled in such reprehensible and hateful terms as “scrounger”, “skiver” and “shirker”.

Our culture of ‘Scroungerology’ has been something I have been writing polemic on for a number of years now at The Recusant and through the two anti-austerity anthologies under its e-imprint Caparison: Emergency Verse – Poets in Defence of the Welfare State (2010/11) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2012/13).

It also seems an apt time then to pitch Caparison’s belated third poetry anthology, The Brown Envelope Book, or The Brown E-Book for short, since it will be, at least initially, an electronic publication, as was, originally, Emergency Verse.

The main theme of this third anthology is, as the title suggests, benefits cuts and welfare stigmatisation, but it will also be addressing the housing crisis by petitioning for the reintroduction of private rent controls and also raising greater awareness of the prevalence of letting agent-and-landlord negative vetting of prospective tenants on the basis that they claim benefits or Local House Allowance (even if they’re in work!).

Poets of all stripes are invited to submit their poems on the themes of unemployment and welfare; the empathic but, more especially, the empirical, welcome.

Alan Morrison’s Tan Raptures is published by Smokestack Books. It is available now to order at: https://www.waterstones.com/book/tan-raptures/alan-morrison/9780995563506To submit work for consideration in The Brown E-Book, please email up to six poems along with a brief biog in the body of the email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please put ‘Brown E-Book’ in the subject header.

Sixth Rapture: Shut Curtains during the Day

Unlike riches, policies do have a trickledown effect,
And the dictates of Damascus Smith –hairshirt Thomas Malthus
Of Caxton House/or Gregor Mendel of the DWP–
Would germinate into a pearl-white species of cropped
Correspondences in Kafkaesque script bespeaking strange augurs,
Barbed inferences, grim omens, pointed portents –vatic tans
Vibrating with cryptic stings: ‘A query has arisen regarding
Your claim…’, or, ‘We are letting you know what might happen to you’,
But without actually doing so, only adumbrating through
Deliberate ambiguity and mystique of omission (the old
Hemingway tip-of-the-iceberg effect), lacings of uncertainty,
Leaving the door wedged open to auto-suggestion, taxing
Anxious imaginations prone to catastrophic projections –
The implicatures captured uniquely in tan paper raptures;
While elliptic and ecliptic occupational purposes, strange
Occulting ranks and titles, Customer Compliance Officers,
Brought thoughts of Thought Police or plain-clothed
Gestapo in tan macs with glacial stares behind impenetrable
Spectacles turning up on doorsteps clutching rolled umbrellas
And black leather briefcases stuffed full with thumbscrews,
Coat-hangers, piano wires, tape-recorders and lie-detectors –
While Government encouragement of neighbourly petit-
Espionage on unemployed suspects (more the ‘Big Brother
Society’) upped the tan ante for vigilante attitudes
And raised the temperature spiking the thunderous atmosphere
To puncture-point as Ministers instructed conscientious
Citizens to take note of those windows with “shut curtains
During the day” –or, in Baronet Osborne’s vocabulary:
“Closed shutters”– as they left for work each morning: dawn
Patrols of resentful workers directed to mark front doors
Of suspected Dole-Judes, like so many beady-eyed jackdaws –
It’s a peculiarly English kind of malice that criminalises
Innocents and victimises victims of circumstances thrust
On them by others’ “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”…
How appropriate that the Department for War on the Poor
Should send out such vindictive missives in envelopes
Of various browns, parcelling captured sunlight
To disinfect the disaffected, frightened, forgotten, pilloried,
Persecuted, tarred-and-feathered benefit spendthrifts
And profligates, scapegoats and targets for the ran-tan tanning
Of stigmatising tans –what strange types of benefits that grant
No benefits, neither to wallet nor wellbeing, but only
Deplete peace of mind and suppress appetites of “useless eaters”,
“Asocial” and “arbeitsscheu”–is that part of the point, to soften
The blow of swallowed-up cash-flow by shrinking stomachs
So there’s less need for food but more room for souls to grow
Like tapeworms of purely spiritual appetites distending
Themselves on the carroty acid reflux of phantom
Mastication, swishing round in rapturous backwashes from
Half-digested papers…? Some recipients experience
Epiphanies: eat the tan envelopes, as if they were unleavened
Victuals, bellies booming out with brown Holy Ghosts…

from 'Tan Raptures' (Tan Raptures, Smokestack Books 1 April 2017)

Slave Songs and Symphonies
Sunday, 26 March 2017 17:10

Slave Songs and Symphonies

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison reviews one of the new Culture Matters poetry pamphlets.

This new series of poetry pamphlets under the Culture Matters imprint of Manifesto Press are glossily produced and complemented by specially commissioned illustrations throughout, all of which is to emphasize CM’s mission to spread progressive and accessible literature to a wide class-crossing readership (funding from the Unite union puts a stamp to that). This is a bold and brave cultural mission, especially in such reactionary times, not unlike that of Pelican back in the 1930s.

The superbly eclectic and engaging CM website (one can almost imagine the ghost of Christopher Caudwell personally endorsing it) has already proven an enormous success attracting a significant readership but above all a broad and hugely varied contributor base. 

Slave Songs and Symphonies by Glaswegian poet David Betteridge is a consummate and immediately engaging introduction to this new series of poetry pamphlets, a passionate, intelligent but still highly accessible collection of poems that serves as an accomplished primer of contemporary political poetry. Akin to the very Blakean ethos of Culture Matters, the emphasis here is very much on poems as ‘songs’ and Betteridge’s verse has some key aspects in common with the Blake of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and not simply in its associative title. Like Blake, Betteridge composes cadent polemical poems that are ostensibly accessible while offering figurative depth for those readers looking beneath the surface narratives, allusions and dialectics.

The first poem in the chapbook, ‘So Long’, opens with a quote from Italian Marxist writer and political thinker, Antonio Gramsci, a statement of allegiance starting: ‘I am a partisan, I am alive’. This dialectical narrative poem charts the development of historical human consciousness and to its close launches into a kind of Hegelian thesis asserting – in italics – a profound Marxian conception of ‘the Fall’ as humanity’s lapse into feudalism and capitalism:

namely the class divide that brought such woe
into the world, out of a Bronze Age melting pot.

Elites took power to own and rule,
against the interests of the rest,
whose role it was to labour, die, and rot.
the class divide: it is our Original
(and continuing) Sin, to be redeemed, if ever,
only in a Commonweal.

‘In Brecht’s Bar’ starts with a brilliant quote from the eponymous groundbreaking German dramaturge: ‘Who built the seven gates of Thebes?/ The books are filled with the names of kings./ Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?’ This is a short dialogue poem, a verse vignette set in a pub in which one punter speaks to another about the absence of written working-class history:

‘I overheard you talking.
Seems History’s your thing: mine, too,
though all the dates and names
that interest me
are never put in any books at all.’

‘Fighting Back’ is in similar vein, a charming vignette of an elderly veteran protestor who salutes goodbye to a fellow traveller with a ‘thumbs-up, then clenched fist’ –Betteridge is an often very witty poet. ‘Giving Back Riches’ is juxtaposed with a striking photographic collage picture by collaborative artist Bob Starrett featuring the impressive black actor, singer, Communist, political activist and icon of the Harlem Renaissance, Paul Robeson. Betteridge pays emotive tribute to Robeson:

Carrying a deep wound, his and the world’s,
dreaming a generous dream,
following the rainbow and the dove,
he was a giant, serving the people.

He personifies him as many mighty rivers, and other geographical features:

He was Clyde and Volga,
Mississippi, Ganges, Amazon and Nile.
He was Vesuvius.

Robeson was truly a force of nature in many respects, artistically and politically, and an especially courageous man considering the more racially prejudiced times he lived and worked in. As an outspoken Communist, he was also included on the McCarthy blacklist. Betteridge’s eulogy rings directly: 'His echo lingers, loud/ for those with souls to hear'.

The longest poem in the pamphlet is ‘Showing a Way’ and depicts the Upper Clyde Shipyard Work-in of 1971-2, previously commemorated in the excellent Betteridge-edited A Rose Loupt Oot (Smokestack Books, 2012), and reviewed on The Recusant. The poem begins fittingly with an aphorism from Work-in leader Jimmy Reid: ‘We are witnessing an eruption not of lava but of labour’. The Vesuvius of the previous poem and the lava quoted at the top of the following one gives a volcanic quality to the imageries of this selection.

‘Showing a Way’ begins with a passionate assertion that is all the more striking because of its simplicity of expression:

Once upon a time – here,
in the real world, for this is not a fairy tale –
a bold idea changed If to That.
Imagine, acted on by many,
took on the force of hard material fact.

There’s a consciously naïve quality which arguably makes its point more succinctly and potently than anything more poetically oblique could:

This happened many years ago:
the place, the shipyards of the Upper Clyde.
The wonder is, given the world’s wounds since,
the bold idea has not yet died.

This ‘bold idea’ we might conclude is Socialism or Communism. Betteridge’s most sublime poetic moments stand out strikingly amidst his more accessible and direct phrasing and diction – again we have something of a threading leitmotif in the image of ‘rivers’:

All rivers have their storied past,
in part the same, in part unique.
more than a few have known the pride
of ships well made and safely launched;
and also known, when fortunes ebb,
a shadow-side; but here, at UCS,
a Labour victory was ours,
and Capital, out-classed, endured reversal,
and a loosening of its powers.

From the leitmotif of ‘rivers’ to the volcanic leitmotif, reiterating Jimmy Reid’s quote from the top of the poem:

Big on any scale, a volcano, not of lava
but of Labour, burst into flame.
The action that eight thousand workers took
filled the bright skies of politics.

Betteridge venerates the UCS Work-in as a significant victory in the history of class struggle, something groundbreaking even for the more politically restive and radicalised Seventies:

Briefly, social order’s deep assumptions shook.
That is the core of Clyde’s especial claim.

The forces of Capital marked out the shipyard as a ‘Lame duck’ of declining industry. ‘Never mind the lives invested there,/ the teeming skill, the order book!’ Betteridge rightly protests. Then, more defiantly: ‘Dead duck was what it wished to see,/ little knowing that our bird would fly’. There’s then a note of triumph in the following pithily expressed, part-rhyming stanza:

Unite and fight!
In tandem, and in full,
heeding the maxim’s dual elements,
not from the dole outwith the shipyards’ gates,
but working from within:
there lay the workers’ stratagem,
that helped us win.

[The term ‘outwith’ is Scottish and means ‘outside; beyond’]. For this was the unique strategy of this particular strike, a strike which, ingeniously, involved not a downing of tools and a walking off the premises but oppositely a continuation of production as part of a Work-in, or labour lock-in if you like. Like the striking miners of the mid-Eighties, the UCS working strikers were sustained by donations of money, provisions and, just as importantly, messages of moral support, to help keep their bodies and minds together:

This shipyards’ mail bag,
like a farmer’s sack of seed,
spilled out its daily bulge of contents:
news received of rallies, demonstrations, strikes;
well-wishers’ words, and sometimes flowers;
and cash, from corner shops,
from churches, children, unions,
and the whole wide listening world,
sums both large and widows’ generous mites,
sent in comradeship, to keep
the struggle’s fire alight.

But next Betteridge turns his attention to the state of play today:

The yards were saved: the bold idea,
in act, had proved its worth.
But now, several decades on, what’s left?
In place of gain, a creeping dearth.

It is indeed a bleak prospect:

Not only ships have sunk, or gone for scrap,
but yards as well, and jobs, and skills,
and with them, hope.

Capitalism has long laid waste to much of British society, not just industry but communities, solidarity, the hope of socialism. The Thatcherite Tories put paid to such aspirations of fellowship, community and equality, having learnt many strategic lessons from such rare proletarian triumphs as the UCS Work-in (e.g. such as when the Thatcher Government stocked up on coal prior to bringing in its toxic policy to shut down most of the country’s coal mines, having anticipated the immediate effects of miners striking). Thus Betteridge laments:

For Capital, the battle that it lost
was clarion-call and school;
it learned far more than we.
It learned to hone its tools of shock,
displace, lay off, and rule.

Betteridge continues pessimistically using brutalised language to express the brutalisation of the industrial proletariat:

Ganging up and doing down,
it made too many of us settle, first for slices
of the loaf we made, then beggars’ crusts,
then bugger all; ruthlessly,
it grabbed again its habitual crown.

Betteridge perfectly expresses the despair of the Left at the atomisation of the working classes, the chronic decline in social solidarity, and their political alienation from globalisation, all of which has made ripe pickings for the duplicitous populism of Ukip and the embroilment of Brexit:

For us, a tragedy ensued,
its playing-out still under way;
comrades at loggerheads and each others’ throats;
lost sense of purpose and common cause,
parties pulled apart, offering least, not best, resistance
in a losing war.

Betteridge then reflects on the UCS Work-in: ‘how might we have built on it/ and built afresh; how might we, even now,/ still launch upon our carrying stream of deepest need’. So to a defiant historical materialist rallying-cry, a concrete crescendo of class determination in the face of only apparently triumphant capitalism – bolstered by ecological and geological imagery, tectonics, volcanic etc.:

This world shifts restlessly;
a rising flood of tremors agitates beneath;
fresh rifts in what we thought was solid mass
appear.

Deep energy demands release.
Eruptions can’t be far: the forest’s clear.

Present struggle cries to know
the complex story of its past.
Take it, save it from erasure,
or revision’s grasp!

What happened here in ’71 and ‘2
can be no Terra Nullius of the mind, open
for errors to invade: it’s where,
ablaze and wise, we entered history,
and showed a way whereby a future
might be made.

Perhaps my favourite poem in this chapbook is ‘A Fish Rising’, which employs a beautiful metaphor of the carp for the seemingly slow even glacial emergence of socialism from the muddy depths of the capitalist pond, of socialism’s dormancy, that even at times when it seems to be absent, it is still with us albeit invisibly beneath the surface of vicissitudes, and that it can take a long time for it to slowly float up and break through that historical surface. But socialism is always there as long as there is oppression; it is the ineffaceable shadow of just outrage cast by the planted colossus of capitalism – its anathema and ultimate nemesis.

Betteridge begins with a profound quote from revolutionary figure Rosa Luxemburg: ‘The revolution will raise itself up again…/ it will proclaim: I was, I am, I shall be…’. ‘A Fish Rising’ is perhaps an example of what William Empson defined as ‘covert pastoral’ in his book Some Versions of Pastoral (1935): that is to say poetry which appears on the surface as pastoral or bucolic in terms of imagery but which is actually polemical, even politically subversive, in its underlying messages. Betteridge presents us with natural imagery and metaphor to evoke the sometimes dormant but ever-restless spirit of socialism:

From the bottom of an ancient pool,
said to be bottomless,
up to the film of its meeting with the still air,
hungry, in search of fly or grub,
a fat carp rises.

The use of natural imagery here is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney and, at times, the darker twists of Ted Hughes – the following is a beautifully wrought trope:

With a barbed kiss,
it breaks the surface and the silence
of this summer’s day, and eats;
then, glidingly, it noses
back to the cool of its brown deep,
a world away.

The striking phrase ‘brown deep’ is distinctly Hughesian; the enjambment after ‘deep’, partitioning off the trope ‘A world away’, is particularly powerful in expressing the sharp separation between idealism and reality. Betteridge then casts an eye back through history as he contemplates this deep ancient pond:

Romans in their heyday were the first
to stock this pool; thereafter, monks
hymning their dead
and risen god, tended the fish,
until in turn
their fortunes, like the Romans’,
fell.

There then ensues a beautifully phrased, profound trope which is at once rueful as it is hopeful:

Now, at another epoch’s ruined end,
the world in flames,
I pace the foot-worn path around the pool;
heavy with thought,
I count the failed resurgences
that history has seen, brief flowerings
of the people’s will.
they grew wild, their early promise
of a new-style beauty, unremembered now,
or else despised.

The phrase ‘brief flowerings/ of the people’s will’ is particularly emotive of the struggle of socialism and its' only periodic surfacing. Betteridge again defiantly appropriates lost battles in the cause of socialism as instructive vicissitudes: ‘succeeding Calvaries along the way may serve/ as school and seed of future victory’. The poem’s momentum becomes almost visionary:

Eurydice sang, a women’s choir.
I had heard them at a May Day years before.
Now, at the fish-pool’s side, in my mind’s replay,
they sang again, ballads in praise
of two dead giants of our foundering cause.

Then there’s a flourish of Glaswegian idiolect:

Forward tae Glesga Green we’ll march in guid order…
aye there, man, that’s johnnie noo –
that’s him there, the bonnie fechter.
Lenin’s his fiere, an’ Leibknecht his mate…

Betteridge then depicts two past figureheads of the historic Left, Scots Bolshevik and founder of the Scottish Workers Republican Party, who died at just 44 after his health had been destroyed through forced feeding while imprisoned, John Maclean, here a spectre ‘pale-faced, hoarse-voiced’, and the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist martyr, who died at the hands of German soldiers in the aftermath of the failed Spartacist uprising of 1919 – she’s invoked by Betteridge thus:

The other: passionate, an optimist,
convinced that everyone can contribute a mite,
or more, to all our hope’s refashioning,
until a soldier’s rifle butt abruptly put a stop
to all her eloquence, cracking her proud head
like a coconut.

Maclean and Luxemburg:
their lives’ example burns,
sticking in our consciences,
reproachfully,
like sulphur flames.

Betteridge brings this brilliant poem to its defiant end in an almost incantatory tone which stirs the spirit:

I see a movement in the pool,
a glimpse of mottle, a sun-reflecting curve,
a twist of tail and fin.

One speck of dirt, or gold,
can tip the heaviest-laden balance
from the straight.

(Taking hope, I count some auguries
of hope.)

One fact, discrepant with the dogma
of the orthodox, can breach its errors’ edifice,
admitting light.

One wound, one cry, one song,
one name can travel faster than a Caesar’s hate.

We are – or might become –
a force more powerful than earthquakes,
cyclones, lava-flows, or a river’s wearing-down
of mountains to peneplain.

Slowly rising, the carp begins once more
to stir, to swim.

It’s interesting to see again the leitmotifs of ‘lava’ and ‘rivers’. The restraint of the final trope abruptly arrests the onward rush of the verses leading up to it but tantalises by ending on infinitives, which indicate continuation, action: in this case, socialism is in the process of resurfacing again as a causal force.

‘Pulling the Plug’ is a poem-polemic expressing opposition to the reprehensible and remorseless welfare reforms of the past six years although this is not explicit in the poem itself (the Notes at the back of the pamphlet elucidate this). Betteridge captures well the sense of outrage and moral disgust at the apparent insouciance of ministers who have seemingly with impunity salami-sliced hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, sick and disabled out of existence. Betteridge’s invective pulls no punches in its directness:

The killer nods, pretends to listen,
curves his mouth in a lean grin.
I see a shark, in his element,
sure of his next and every win.
The killer manages a judicious tear.
(‘I empathise; I go to church; I care…’)
I see an obvious reptile here.
The killer laughs.
I see an ape, exulting in his dominance.

Betteridge’s explains in the Note to this poem that this is a ‘composite’ of various ministers, but it’s almost impossible to read this particular stanza without picturing the chief culprit of the benefit cuts and so-called ‘welfare reforms’, the egregious and pathologically arrogant Iain Duncan Smith who is certainly reptilian in manner and is a self-proclaimed Roman Catholic and church-goer.

No doubt IDS is a particular figure of hate in Betteridge’s native Glasgow, since, it was in the deprived Easterhouse – which is, I believe, part of the larger impoverished area of the Gorbals – that the future Work and Pensions Secretary apparently had his ‘Damascene moment’ on first witnessing abject poverty there. IDS apparently shed a tear on that occasion, and also later shed ‘a judicious tear’ when being interviewed by Ian Hislop in a documentary about the history of British welfare provision when talking about a young destitute single mother he’d met.

IDS’s answer to such cases: strip state support from the third child up! Duncan Smith certainly is a reptile in the sense he cries crocodile tears. The poem’s title is a double play: it’s the incensed Glaswegian TV viewer pulling the plug of the TV set after having enough of watching Tory ministers justify the unjustifiable, while also summoning to mind the what the Government has administratively been doing to countless incapacitated and seriously ill claimants over six years.

‘The Tug of It’ remembers the countless past half-forgotten proletarian lives that once gave shape and spirit to various streets, houses, objects and tools of trade. After an aphorism on the sempiternal nature of history by the recently departed John Berger, this partly ekphrastic poem begins with a meditation on static written history, on less-remembered and under-recorded working-class lives and histories, and conjures the ghosts of these proletarian pasts:

Sitting among books, listening inwardly,
we sense each writer importune:
Free me from the limbo of the printed past.
Let me join you; let me hear, through you,
my silenced tongue at last.

There is then what might be termed a class-Dendrochronology:

Looking at the tools we have,
thinking as we work with them,
we meet the many hands before us
that have altered, useably, their make
and fit: a chain of rafts runs back,
and back, and we can feel the tug of it.

On a prosodic note, the use of internal rhyme here is a deft touch, and one is almost reminded at times in Betteridge’s more metrical passages of Martin Bell, Tony Harrison and Andy Croft. Betteridge pays tribute to numberless shadowy working-class lives as he is happily haunted by class-ancestors:

Standing in a field of stooks,
or wandering the streets of any town,
we see at every turn
the trace and monument of many folk.

That latter phrase is particularly striking [‘stooks’ is a term for a clutch of sheaves set upright in a field to dry]. The stanza continues evocatively:

That path across the well-worked rigs –
those whose feet first trod it,
those who came each year to plough
and sow and harvest, and maintain the ditch,
while empires grew, then died…
that house or factory or school or shop –
those who gave to it their given time,
in living there and work…

Betteridge concludes the poem on a note of eternal remembrance: ‘They are all accessible through memory/ to us, and in memory persist’.

‘Essential Gifts’ is a glorious song for socialism primed on a simple but profound aphorism from Scottish mill worker and socialist activist, Mary Brooksbank, which invokes the socialist aspiration of a material heaven on earth: ‘This surely was what you were created for,/ to make this here a hereafter’. The poem is a part-lament for a historically maltreated Scotland:

Generations left this land.
Emptied glens, and mills and mines
grassed-over now, and hard-built hopes
knocked flat by the frequent wrecking ball
bear witness to a long ebb
of clearance, exile, and decline.

Driven by hunger and the loaded gun,
seeing no future here worth dying for,
wave upon living waves, our forebears travelled
far, no continent unmarked by the ill
or good of their setting there;
but this plot of earth to which we cling,
can feast us all, and others too, who join us now,
if only tended with a lover’s care.

It’s an almost hymn-like paean to proletarian Scotland but one which, in Betteridge’s signature tone, rises to a defiantly optimistic close:

There are riches heaped around,
ready for our harvesting, essential gifts
of sea and air and common ground.
We, by hand and brain, can labour them,
creating goods, enough to share.

Our class has made a start.
Things change; we make them change,
as we, like fortune, like the seasons,
like the seas’ tides, turn; and, having turned,
we see in full the great worth
of our now and future land.

The collection closes on ‘Only in a Commonweal’. The poem is preceded by another aphorism of Rosa Luxemburg’s: ‘Where the chains of Capitalism are forged,/ there they must be broken…’. This poem is again a kind of proletarian hymn that reminds how it is the common citizens of capitalist societies that keep it functioning and producing and manufacturing, the same ‘proles’ or ‘plebs’ who are, of course, called up to be sacrificed for said societies in times of conflict. This is the only poem –perhaps because it is the closing one– which is centre-justified:

We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.
Expendable, we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for, but have none.

This is a fiercely defiant anthem for the unsung working - or ‘maintenance’- class of capitalist society, its operators, producers, carriers, pallbearers:

Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.
Every sweated brick and girder, every milligram and tonne
of every building you command is ours.
Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed is ours.
Your wealth-producing factories, your cities – ours!

Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need
from reservoir to tap; we stitch the clothes
that cover up your nakedness,
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.

Then we come to the crescendo of the closing poem and of this deeply affecting and accomplished collection as a whole with the invocation of its collective title:

We are your numerous and essential kin.
Suffering most, we learn most.
Our slave-songs make symphonies;
our longings, creeds.

And finally, to earth with a thud in a phrase which reverberates like a spade hitting stone:

We dig your graves.

David Betteridge’s Slave Songs and Symphonies deserves and demands re-reading and the directness and accessibility of its poetic language and political message combined with the musical song-like tone of the poems themselves makes it more mnemonic in quality than most poetry collections. Glossily produced, and brilliantly illustrated by Bob Starrett, it is almost a secular hymn-book for the proletariat and in that sense is authentically Blakean and an exemplary introduction to the poetic mission of Culture Matters.

 This heartwarming and highly accomplished chapbook is heartily recommended to all classes, strata, and, particularly, culture-thirsty autodidacts.

 

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