Learning to Read #17
I believe that good poetry is a fluid thing – it speaks in many ways to different people, and in different ways at different times of your life. It might be the narrative of a single moment, or a description of a single place or an expression of a single emotion, but I find that my favourite poetry has depths that unpeel and expose themselves only gradually.
This collection is three years old now, but it recently caught my attention in Leeds City Library. It had an initial grab because it’s based around Leeds, so many of the place names and references are very familiar to me, and I’m a sucker for that easy win. It drew me in with this, though, and then presented two other themes that really struck a chord with me.
Firstly, I really picked up on the sense of loss that comes with immigration and cultural integration. The sense of loss both from the newcomers, who find their heritage to be less resistant to the influence of those around them as they’d perhaps like, and to the people who are receiving, who also find that their heritage isn’t as solid and resistant as they’d perhaps want it to be. Integration and transformation on both sides is inevitable, I would argue, whether slow or fast, accepted or despised. Integration has certainly made this country into something that is very different from when I was a child, thirty or forty years ago. Integration with European influences, American influences, Asian influences, Caribbean influences, African influences. All added to the messed up, mixed up culture that we had before. We are a nation built around integration and transformation, but these poems remind me of the residual sadness and sense of loss that underpins these changes. Even in the blaze and colour of families celebrating Leeds Carnival, there are still those who remember things as they were, and their sense of loss overshadows the brightness of what has come to pass as cultures merge. “And within this room in Cowper Street // Grandad rallied the Brotherhood .. like a rebel God, hungry to put // wrongs to right, reshape man’s thinking.” is from Grandad’s Home Brew. “Black is black // in we heartbeat of chants // in we music – // mixing soul and gospel // beating bass n drum.” An echo of the poignancy that you can find in Larkin for example, but from the other side of the changes in society. A reminder of what underpins cultural nostalgia and what underpins some of our modern isolationist politics.
Which brings me to the second theme. I was really struck by the stories of 1970’s and 1980’s Britain, struggling with cultural integration, blighted by riots and racism, all of which I lived through, without really understanding or realising what was happening. I lived near Barrow-in-Furness, and grew up in an environment that was almost exclusively white. And yet, in Leeds we had “Remember, remember the 5th of November, // a day to throw yuh ole things in the road, // hold street competitions to build // the biggest bonfire just for boast.” Youth Rage 1975: Warrior Charge is a story about a Chapeltown riot. “Who watched Roots on TV? // And me, the only black child in class, // screwed up my face, // kissed mih teeth at the classroom laughter // cut my eye at Janet Whitehouse // sat next to me scribbling NF // on her desk – a white girl pride.” Roots on TV pokes my complacency and ignorance, and reminds me that there is still a lot like this happening now. The Daily Mail and Britain First have just changed their targets. With a smile, we are guided to shout out against the Polish and the Muslims and the Euro-crats. Poetry has to continue to remind us of the past, as a reflection of the present and a warning for the future. Holocaust poetry. Racism poetry. War poems. Just in case, in our excitement at a royal wedding, we forget what we still have to keep fighting for.
Even as I posted this, Donald Trump retweeted three of Britain First’s tweets showing graphic violence and clearly encouraging the anti Islamic agenda. Every voice, whether it is poetry or graffiti or song, or twitter, whatever, should be raised against this abhorrent abuse of power. We can’t forget what we still have to keep fighting for.
Oh, and just as an aside – the poetry section at Leeds Library, free to access, varied, well stocked, is just one of the reasons why I’ll forever fight for the concept of a centrally funded public library in Britain.