Christopher Norris

Christopher Norris

Christopher Norris is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.

To George, from Sunny Wigan
Friday, 25 June 2021 17:25

To George, from Sunny Wigan

Published in Poetry

To George, from Sunny Wigan

by Christopher Norris 

At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked . . . . She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye . . . . [Her face] wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen.
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

His eyes caught mine, him on the morning train,
Northbound, next station Wigan, me
Up early, jobs to do,
Clothes slung on, hair not fit to see,
And kneeling, stick in hand, with that blocked drain
To clear, the kind of stuff that he,
Scoop-ready, took as cue
To tell the outside world that we
Poor plebs were padlocked to our ball-and-chain.

I know, I know, all part of his campaign
To shock the shameless bourgeoisie,
To give a close-up view
Of how we live, a woman’s knee
On cold, hard stones as just the thing to gain
A bit of extra sympathy
For us hell-dwellers who
Seem so far gone in misery
That, somehow, we’ve no reason to complain.

What grates when they go slumming to maintain
Their street cred and their pedigree
As our brains-retinue
Is just how often that esprit
De parti prolétaire sounds like disdain
For working-class identity,
Or what they take as true
Marks of it, like my making free
To meet his gaze with gestures so profane.

We get it constantly: ‘you live in vain,
Waste lives in routine labour, flee
The troubling thought that you,
So long downtrodden, might yet be
The very class best placed to ease the pain
Of age-old servitude, the cri
De coeur of your sad crew,
If only you’d promote your plea
With works and days less brutally mundane’.

It’s what we hate, that old class-hopper’s bane
Of thinking they’ve a special key
To others’ life-worlds through
Their reading, thinking, Ph.D.
In urban politics, enormous brain,
Or all the myths that guarantee
The many and the few
Won’t gel, the few on their quick spree
Up North, the many on their darkling plain.

One fantasy I like to entertain
Is how they might get uppity
When gawped at in their zoo,
Those Wigan folk – give him a flea
In his left ear, and then proceed to cane
That book’s dyspeptic parti pris,
The doleful tale it drew
From sifting through our life-debris,
Like me outside in curlers, stick up drain.

Give him this tip from me: next time you deign
To come, do meet the family,
Spare us an hour or two,
And let the lived reality
Sink in, the squalor but, as well, the strain
Of stoic humour that can see
The joke yet still say ‘screw
Your Wigan Pier stuff’ when the glee
Proclaims ‘down south’ the jester’s home domain.

Please know your nitty-gritty leaves a stain
Of patronage on all that we
Drain-pokers might accrue
Of self-respect, autonomy,
Or books, books, books as our road to attain
The kind of knowledge you would-be
Déclassé types won’t do
Much good with till your family tree
Sprouts new red leaves: then head up North again!

Rogues
Sunday, 28 June 2020 16:38

Rogues

Published in Poetry

Rogues

by Christopher Norris

The most ‘roguish’ of rogue states are those that circulate and make use of a concept like ‘rogue state’, with the language, rhetoric, juridical discourse, and strategico-military consequences we all know. The first and most violent of rogue states are those that have ignored and continue to violate the very international law they claim to champion, the law in whose name they speak and in whose name they go to war against so-called rogue states each time their interests so dictate.

Jacques Derrida, Rogues: two essays on reason

 (Note: imagined as spoken or inwardly voiced by the philosopher Derrida, reflecting on that much-discussed topic ‘the politics of deconstruction’. One charge often thrown at Derrida is that of idealism, of proposing that there is quite literally ‘nothing outside the text’, or no objective reality beyond the realm of textual inscriptions. I have rebutted that charge at length elsewhere and hope that this poem – inspired by his book Rogues – will further explain where I think it is misconceived.)

 It comes back like a boomerang, your schtick
Of using that word ‘rogue’ to tell your friends,
Home and abroad, that now you’re out to kick
Some foreign ass, that this is where it ends,
That it’s a fight that only fools would pick,
And so they’d better strive to make amends
Or face your wrath and live to rue the day
They chose the rogue’s and not the good guy’s way.

It leaves his hand, sweeps high and wide, then quick
As thought comes back to strike the hand that sends
The charge since rogue’s a label that can stick
To chucker as to chucked-at – just depends
On who’s the rogue whose local bailiwick
Is under threat and who’s the rogue who lends
His threat an extra boost by some display
Of moral zeal and talk of hell to pay.

Old wars involved not boomerang but brick,
The sorts of word and weapon one defends
Against by building fortress walls as thick
As can be, or by language that descends
Just so far and no further: out to lick
The foe alright, but if the volley bends
Right round and back then keener to obey
That rogue-revealing sign and quit the fray.

‘Outside the text’, all this, but do take note:
If there’s some logic in this strange affair
Of how we grow more roguish as we gloat
Over those roguish others, or ensnare
Ourselves more deeply as we get by rote
The old rogue-calling rigmarole, then where
Can its first principles be found if not
By deconstructing that infernal plot?

They call me ‘apolitical’ and quote
Me out of context to establish their
False view of me as one who’s out to bloat
The sphere of some monde extraordinaire
Wherein the teeming signifiers float
Free of all earthly ties in the thin air
Of a far off pan-textual wonderland
While phantoms multiply on every hand.

You’ll see why the nay-sayers get my goat
With their unceasing jibes if you’ll just spare
A thought for how the readings I devote
To ‘dead white male philosophers’ lay bare
The twists of logic Trump & Co. promote,
Those ‘free-world’ demagogues without a care
For their own roguery who blithely fling
The rogue-word out when profit pulls the string.

It’s double-edged, that argument of mine
About ‘the text’ and how its borders trace,
Like worldly boundaries, a fragile line
Criss-crossed by rifts, by checkpoints out-of-place,
And fractured entities that recombine
As world and text turn out to interlace
In ways unknown to those whose mindset sticks
Well short of any dialethic fix.

That rogue-talk gives the cautionary sign
Of lethal stuff ahead, an insult-race
Cranked up to reinject some moral spine
Into their latest power-grab, profit-chase,
Or killing spree devised to redefine
The rules of who wins out and so saves face
In the rogue-calling match and who’ll be sped
Straight up the line till exiled, gaoled, or dead.

‘You rogue!’ once meant you’d taken quite a shine
To some rascally fellow who’d disgrace
The two of you next thing, not like the swine
Who use it now to tell their voter-base
A new rogue-state is in the firing-line
Since lately deemed a total waste of space,
Most often one that, just a few weeks back,
Was chief attack-dog in the loyalist pack.

It’s how you might expect the word to go
When states, like bodies, start to manifest
The crash of systems locked in counterflow,
Of antibodies rampant, and the rest
Of what goes wrong when self-defences grow
Too powerful and the forces they invest
In killer strategies like Shock and Awe
Turn back to self-indict their every flaw.

Rogue, voyou: words that rogues and voyous throw
Around to show they’ve passed the good-guy test,
Yet whose pandemic spread just goes to show
How roguery thrives, how viruses infest
Our words and thoughts, and how we’ve ceased to know,
As lockdown grips, what language-demon’s messed
With our vain quest to keep ‘auto-immune’
From turning on us like a snagged harpoon.

Let’s not deceive ourselves, who’ve read Rousseau,
With talk of feelings ‘naturally’ expressed
In living speech before the dead escrow
Of culture laid its ominous bequest
On these our latter times when all we owe
To nature, all the ways her presence blessed
Our lives and language, must endure the curse
Of culture like Jean-Jacques put out to nurse.

For, auto-immunised, we’re prone to no
Such Rousseauist nostalgia, nor possessed
Of textual strategies to land a blow
On either party in the long slugfest
Of rival rogues, of word-kill foe-on-foe,
But left to tell the long-declining West
How closer reading might, however late,
Bring fresh immunogens to our rogue state.