I do like the poetry world. Tonight I launched my fifth topical pamphlet in six years. This one’s #MenToo: myths of masculinity - following previous collections on austerity, the war on terror, migration and “Trump, Brexit and Beyond.” Yeah, that’s right. The easy, fluffy stuff. It’s a kind of mix between poetry and journalism, and for a lot of serious poets its treads dangerous near the territory of propaganda - but that doesn’t stop poetic colleagues coming out to support the event. So I hire the local village hall, put on drinks and snacks, and we have a very pleasant hour - read a few poems, chat about reactions and thought, eat and drink a bit more, and then go home. People came from all over Shropshire and beyond - Tenbury, Stone. I sold a few copies, but also spent a bit on hire charge, food and drink, so maybe i broke even and maybe I didn’t, but that’s not the point. It’s created a forum for the work, and a chance to think more thoroughly about the themes involed - I’m so glad I did it, and i’m really lucky with my friends. ,
When Shamima Begum and her friends left the country to join Isis I wrote a sonnet about her, focussing on the press conference where her family appeared holding her teddy bear, saying “she’s our baby, and we want her back.” It seemed like a bad idea at the time, when whatever else she was she clearly wasn’t a baby, and was planning on doing some pretty drastic growing up.
And she has. she’s lost her husband and her children, and wants to come back home with her new baby. enter Sajid Javid, high class chancer, very skilled at watching the tabloids to see which way he ought to jump. Maybe sound hawkish, and say she can’t come back? Threaten to cancel her citizenship - “just like that”? But he’s not an incompetent TV magician. He’s a government minister and he’s supposed to apply the law. where does it say he can rub out someone’s nationality, just because he doesn’t like their political choices? She may be a contradiction, and she may have committed crimes - though she’s innocent until proved guilty. But she is British, and she’s allowed to come back home.
The rest of Europe looks on in disbelief. When you look at how much time has been squandered on meaningless posturing. it’s incredible that we approach the deadline for the UK leaving Europe watching Theresa May regullarly postponing votps she fear she might lose. the only thing she’s worried about is trying to win tory and DUP votes. Other parties, the country, business confidence - who cares? none of it seems to be taken seriously, if only she can create the illusion that something will change on the backstop. the EU are desperate to try to get us to be serious, but there’s no chance, really. We are heading for the dark, and our electoral system offers no rescue of any kind.
Universal Credit, you will not be surprised to hear, is a disaster. It’s been looking that way since at least 2014, and as it’s “rolled out” (wonderful phrase) so the faults keep appearing in brighter, bolder colours. You’ve got to communicate with the office, but not by going in - by ringing up. Often, the lines are jammed. If they are, you’ll get stultifying music, for hours on end - so much kinder just to have total silence. You’ve got to go online, even if you don’t have a computer. You’ve got to look for jobs, even if there aren’t any (and in this particular part of Hartlepool, that’s largely true. And if you’re totally illiterate some fool at the DWP is likely to suggest that you become an IT consultant. Presenting the most vulnerable people on TV is a tough, elusive art, but this programme - Skint Britain - managed it better than most, with warmth and a sense of humour (like The Mighty Recar) but also a gathering rage about the clumsiness of the plans that have been devised to support these people - though ‘support’ is’t the right word. “Make them realise how worthless they are” perhaps? and all in the service of Ian Duncan smith’s nineteenth century view of “Work good, benefits bad.”
Surely we can do better than this?
Wonderful Storyville documentary about Marie Colvin - “Under the Wire”, on BBC4. Most of its about colvin in Homs, particualrly in the days leading up to her killing, and her sidekick/buddy/cameraman Paul Conroy is compulsive viewing. She wasn’t, often, particularly nice - there’s a vivd scene when new reporters arrive on her patch, and she’s rude to and about them (Eurotrash!). Her friend Lindsey Hilsum is cleaerly different - rational, tough, determined, but also aware of the risks - “I asked about her exit strategy. She didn’t have one.” There’s absolutely no doubting Colvin’s commimtent to the civilians of Homs, and her determined spelling out of the aggression of the Assad forces towards their own population - which is probably what got her killed. So she’s a fascinating character rather than a role model, but documentaries like this are as close as you can get to giving us cushy spectators the feel of what it must be like to be in a war zone without putting ourselves at risk in any way. So, thanks, guys.
there’s absolutely no doubt that Venezuela’s in a mess. It goes back a while, and the are complex reasons, and some excellent TV documentaries have spelt out why that’s horrendous for huge numbers of people who live there. But none of that’s an excuse for the crude intervention proposed by Trump - and echoed by large parts of Europe. you’d have thought we might have learnt - vietname, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Intervening ion other countries isn’t a simple matter of saying they got it wrong so the boss man has to go. You need something a lot more sustained, intelligent and long-term if what follows is going to be any better than what went before. But because nobody wants to tell Trump that there are things he doesn’t understand, they troop obediently along, likely to make things worse rather than better.
That’s how the tabloids greeted Mrs. May’s achievement in turning her 230-vote defeat last time into a narrow victory - for what? For going back to Brussels who say there’s nothing to talk about, And then coming back to the Brexit rebels who don;’t like what she’s offering, and reserve the right to rebel again. The woman must be stupid…
Or quite clever, and determined. What if she doesn’t want to solve the problem? What if she wants to wind the clock down, so that it’s her deal or no deal? What if she not only f doesn’t want to solve the problem, but wants to stop anyone else solving it either? We should have had a vote in December. Postponed - two weeks wasted. It will take five minutes to find out how much room there is for negotiation on the backstop, but she’s given herself two weeks. Time is just slipping away…and maybe that’s all part of the plan.
Is anyone going to try to stop, and suggest that this problem need solving?
I’ve already gone on about Milkman, the wonderful, very different Booker prize-winner. But I’ve also been nibbling at the rest of the list, and there’s some wonderfull stuff there. I’m already a fan of Robin robertson’s poems, but The Long Take really is an original departure - poetry, prose, cross-cutting and collage of different types of writing, viewpoints, memories…Deamnds all your concentration, but utterly worth it.
And then there’s Sabrina. shock, horror - a graphic novel listed by the Booker. But this isn’t just any graphic novel. It’s a touch, powerful exploration of th nastier aspects of modern america - the online trolling, the rampant cynicism about motives and easy resort to threats. It’s not much fun, and the lives of the people it describes are limited and grim, but ti certainly stays with you. and it’s very hard to imagine it being done in any other way.
This is in praise of having second thoughts…but also in praise of catch-up TV. I was extremely rude about Christmas TV, and mainly I think that criticism still applie4s. But not entirely. I make a couple of exceptions for programmes i didn’t plan to watch, but then went back to because reviews suggested they might be worth a look. And they were.
As I kid there was a brief period when I read Agatha Christie - until I saw the light and discovered Raymond Chandler. I don’t fancy watching David Suchet stroking his chin because he smugly knows he’s so much brighter than the rest of us - so I didn’#t bother with the ABC Murders. But it wasn’t suchet, it was Malkovich - a much more interesting and human proposition, and yes, it really was very well done and worth catching up.
But the real revelation was Torvill and Dean. ITV spending two hours on a couple of ice-dancers? Bound to be tedious, p[added out with familiar footage, endless music and cooing commentators. Actually, no. A thoughtful, painfully honest drama about two young people and their relationship - that’s interaction as people, differences as human beings, crises, tensions - the stuff of drama. done with the couple’s co-operation, apparently, and they don’t seem to have held anything back. A serious, intelligent piece of work, well worth watching.
So there goes Theresa May’s deal - not with a whimper but with a massive bang. Lost by 230 votes; you can’t get more decisive than that. When she postponed the original vote everyone knew it was only a case of putting off the inevitable, and it would be great to hear exactly what she thinks she gained. But in the meantime, there’s more important stuff to be done. She talks about involving a wider ranger of voices in search of agreement, but in terms of personal skills neither she nor Corbyn is equipped for that. He’s locked in some fantasy where he wins a general election and then persuades the EU to give him what he wants - but he can’t even organise his own cabinet, let alone an international deal. So our fate for the moment is in the hands of Tory and Labour MPs, and for that to have any positive substance, that means collaboration between them. Quite exciting, in a way…even if the history of the last three years doesn’t seem to support much optimism. Maybe the grisly threat of what awaits us if they don’t manage it will actually help to concentrate their minds…let’s hope so.
All through 2018 friends kept telling me about a competition (deadline December 31) asking for poems about Brexit - just your sort of thing, they said. And they’re right, of course, except that entry was free, but each entrant was only allowed to submit one poem, so it’s likely to be a very popular lottery. I knew early on which poem I’d be sending it - a lively account of the journey of the big red Brexit bus. I had a version of this from the summer, but it kept changing to take account of the disastrous nature of the negotiations, and the increasing sense that the bus was heading over the cliff.
So, how to end the poem? Often when i performed it around the circuit I ended up with total gloom, and a sharp defiant question:
“ It’s hell on wheels, it’s rock and roll
So tell me - who took back control?”
It’s a tough, angry conclusion, very much of the moment, but for a published anthology that might sound bleak and cynical - and it might also not be accurate about the story that was unfolding. In November there were rumours of MPs getting together across party lines, to try to rule out both a hard Brexit and the prospect of no deal. Grieve’s amendment was passed, and I scribbled my jaunty conclusion, in which the MPs at the back of the bus eat chips and raise two fingers to the whips, because they have finally taken back control. Then I sent off the poem and waited.
The news got grimmer and grimmer. May delayed a vote she knew she would lose. Detailed preparations for no deal were put in place. Grayling dispatched lorries around the south-east, as a rehearsal for the chaos to come. Maybe I was kidding myself. But then, today, news that the rumours are true. A cross-party group, led again by Dominic Grieve, has put together a motion refusing financial support for no-deal preparations, and the speaker has allowed this amendment to be put, and a majority of MPs have voted it through. Maybe somewhere a poetry judge is looking at my poem, wondering “How on earth did he know this would happen?” We can but hope.
A two-hour drama on Channel 4 by James Graham about Brexit; what’s not to like? Plenty, apparently, judging by the storm of adverse reactions with which the papers are heaving. Anne Perkinds thinks it glorifies an oddball when what was happening was deceit, Shahmir Sanni thinks it simplifies the nature of the crooked deals and social media shanigins. Carole Cadwallader thinks it’s too soon…When would be a good time? What this play does do is convey the huge complexity of this chaotic process - the personalities and the politics, the social media and the social pressures, the sheer lack of control or direction which gave us our current mess in all its glory. No, it doesn’t neatly confirm the prejudices of those watching it, and it would be useless as drama if it did. What it does do is offer a lively, entertaining overview, a way of making sense out of what’s volatile and complicated. I’ve read the books Graham has read- Shipman, Oliver, Banks - and I’m astonished by how much real detail he’s been able to weave into this fast-moving and thought-provoking piece. Well worth watching, and well worth watching again.
If a documentary is on BBC4, and it’s part of the Storyville strand, then it’s probably going to be worthwhile. This one, a huge two-part analysis of David Koresh and Waco, was stunning. It’s partly that they’ve got the time to tack down a lot of people who were part of this story, and a significant number of veterans of Koresh’s community who retain the faith that there was something very special about him. there were also a wise old local journalist, and an FBi man who sat impatients on the sidelines, just itching to crash in and start shooting people. and he got his way. A whole lot of stuiff I’d never heard before. some very canny Bible scholars who knew Revelation as well as Koresh did hatched this plan to publicise his writings about it, and he was in the process of doing this when the raid started. (they thought it might have been the deal that made the peace; the FBI were sure it was all a con). there were video’s made of the negotiators and of the community members, so that they could swap them ina kind of mutual introduction - but those of the Koresh followers weren’s show, because it might have made them look too human and appeakling. When the FBI were trying to pressure Janet Reno into authorising a raid on the community, they told her that Koresh was likely to abuse the children (not true) but they didn’t tell her about the deal with the bible schol;ars. So in they go…and one of the community members testifies that when the assault started, with teargas, it was members of the community who set the building alight, and ensured the death of themselves and many members. Gruesome stuff, but necessary and informative.
Having clocked up my seventy fourth birthday, there are odd moments when I try to think ahead, and now the Christmas sillliness is over I actually get some help from the TV. Two portraits of eighty-year olds in action, and they couldn’t be more different. Raymond Briggs is a bit doddery, eccentric and slow, lovable but very much imprisoned in memories of his own childhood. but it’s good to be reminded, in sequence, of his varied creations - Father Christmas, Fungus, Snowman, Falklands, When the Wind blows - and he’s got a chorus of approving fans to die for - Steve Bell, Nick Park, Posy Simmonds.
And then there’s Andrew Davies. Totally irrepressible, confident and - having polished off Les Miserables (with some cheeky irreverence about the musical - which I also hate) he now can’t wait to get his teeth into A suitable boy - just a thousand pages or so of intricate Indian novel. He’s clever and sharp rather than profound, and he too has a chorus of praise, but for him as an adaptor rather than an original creator - he’s quick, ruthless, gets rids of the stuff you don’t need. But still an impressive work ethic, which it’s tiring to watch, let alone emulate.
way back when, when the kids were young, I remember making a chart of all the goodies on TV, so we could try and avoid clashes, and catch all the good stuff that was going on. Not sure what happened to that. On my birthday, December 26, I wanted to watch a good movie, but there just wasn’t anything on any of the channels that looked appetising in any way. So it’s back to the DVD collection, and a sumptuous two hours in the company of Cary Grant, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint - with Htichcock controlling the dials. “North by NorthWest”, a total treat, witty, clever and suspenseful, not wasting our time or insulting our intelligence. I don’t lnow why we have to go back sixty years to have a good time, but I’m glad we can.
a good week for Vladimir Putin. He’s smiling like a Cheshire Cat because (1) we’re in a Brexit-shaped mess and the EU is suffering (2) Donald Trump has ignored all wise advice, shafted his allies, and with no consultation pulled troops out of Syria. and there’s Putin, on the sidelines, applauding Trump for a good choice, solemnly nodding that May is right to abide by the democratic decision of the British people…not that Putin would recognise democracy if it bit him on the bum. And of course, he isn’ ion the sidelines. He’s pressuring and manipulating, ensuring that his own cash flow continues to run in torresents, in parallel with the maximum disruption of the West. Now we know - courtesy of Congress - how much the russians were doing throughout the Us campaign (not only to boost Trump, but also to discoyrage Black voters from bothering), are we stillgoing to pretend that we’re not sure if Russian intervention had any impact on the Brexit result? Yet another part of the dire prospect we face, with apparently no Parlimantary leadership concerned enough to alter course. Not looking forward to 2019 at all…
It’s a phenomenon I’ve noted before, in this blog and elsehwere, but it’s still weaird when it happens as powerfully as this. I was reading Mark Lawson’s “The Deaths” from Telford Library, when Wenlock Library told me my request for “milkman” had come in. This is the Anna Bruns novel that won the Booker Prize, so I shunted it up the quare, and moved Mark Lawson aside.
The difference is phenomenal. The Lawson was pleasnt enough, witty in a fairly predictable way, and very easily readable.
The Burns is totally different. It’s not obscure or provocatively difficult; it just demands extra close attention, and your progress from page to page is consistently richer and slower - this is a pleasure that shouldn’t, mustn’t be rush. Very hard to convey unless you’re actually reading it, but I am, and I’m loving it. Sorry, Mark, I’ll get back to you - but if I have to choose then she has to come first.
Just got an offer I’ve had to refuse, and it breaks my heart. There’s a protest in Wiolverhampton on Tuesday night, against the trial of the Stansted Fifteen, and they’re asking for interested poets. Yes, a poet of sorts. Yes, very interested - but sadly committed elsewhere. But I have sent them a poem, because this is a cause very close to my heart.
Migrants being forcibly deported, dragged on a plan and dumped in various parts of Africa. Some of them have been trafficked, some of them have appeals pending, but none of that makes any difference to the specialists in Hostile Environment. So I’m delighted that protestors have immobilised this plane - specially chartered by the Home Office, and prevented the removal of these people. They’re tried under an anti-terrorist law, passed in response to Lockerbie - some time back. In the interim, the only person charged u nder it was the pilot of a helicopter who tried to crash it into a control tower. On the spectrum of serious risk, this protest falls a long way short of that, but the powers that be are going out of their way to ensure that these naughty children are to be taught a lesson. And the judge clearly got the message, instructing the jury to ignore any stuff about human rights, and just focus on whether or not they affected the business of the airport.
So there’s two big things to be noisy about here - the forced deportations, and the right to protest. I shan’t be there on Tuesday, but I’ll be cheering them on.. And you can find th poem I sent them elsewhere on this website, in Poems from the News.
Oh dear. It just keeps getting worse. No, says May, the vote will definitely go ahead. Her loyal cabinet trawl the airwaves, insisting she won’t back down. At the very last minute, she backs down. the blood-curdling masses of the ERG challenger her leadership, demand a vote. They lose, by 117-200. Rees-Mogg insists that if that’s the margin of victory, she should go to the queen and hand in her notice. If he’d won by 200-117, is that what he’d have done? Not a chance. short-term egotists the lot of them, with not a glimmer of how they look to us, or - even more embarassing - the world as a whole. And it would be wonderful to pretend that Labour were any more united, imaginative, or aware. Sadly, I can’t do it…
Don’t go to the theatre these days - can’t be sure of knee-room - but I was tempted by the streaming of the National performance of Antony and Cleopatra. Always one of my favourite plays - writing essays about Shakespeare’s Roman plays was the start of my serious political education. and sure enough, tons of the speeches were familiar. As the complicated manoeuvres of the political deals unrolled, I was nodding - yeah, there’s this, and then there’s that. Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okeneido were terrific, until the moment when Cleopatra asks Octavia about Caesar’s plans - “What will he do with you?” Like, I’m sure, thousands of people across the country, I wanted to scream “No, Sophie, it’s not you - it’s me? You’re asking about yourself.” Anyone can make a mistake, and all of us who’ve been on a stage for more than ten minutes have first-hand experience of that, but on stage, on screen, broadcast around the world ? No, it didn’t wreck the evening, and this was a stunning performance - close up of a brightly coloured asp, and all - but that tiny little slip was a razor slice into the suspension of disbelief.