Alan Morrison (b. 18 July 1974) is an English poet for whom poetry is about changing the world rather than describing it. In complex and radical ways though not without conflicts, Morrison brings together his life and art to argue for “every individual’s right to a home and to food in their belly.” His most recent book “Keir Hardie Street” is published by Smokestack press.
Prakash: In “Why I Write” George Orwell says: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Do you think a statement like this somehow describes your work as a whole in the sense that your politics is intertwined with your poetry or does your poetry have an independent character outside the framework of politics?
Alan: I recognize that quote from Orwell, I think he was referring to Keep the Aspidistra Flying! which is a witty and sometimes pertinent novel, but arguably a bit repetitive at times. But he was being a bit hard on himself and on the book, since it does address incidentally unusually gritty themes such as Gordon Comstock’s scraping together his small change to see if he has enough to get him through one day taking his girlfriend out. So it is a social novel still, and political, but more a black comedy. Firstly, my poetry does have an independent character outside the framework of politics, and many of my poems in my previous two volumes have been a variety of subjects, tones and styles, but why is it I often ask myself that I keep coming back to the same domestic social themes, of beggars on the streets, of poverty – both of my upbringing and associated memories that have left an indelible mark on me since, and that of others in society…?
I don’t fully know, I just seem to instinctively itch to use my poetry for social and political subjects in the main; I think poetry is, or at least should be, about society and people – politics – as much as ideas and feelings and personal desires. It is an intrinsically political art-form, though over the past thirty odd years – not un-coincidentally simultaneous with the deeply scarring and anti-artistic Thatcherite mentality in the UK – it has, like so many other creative mediums, become ever more inward-looking, solipsistic and apolitical; establishmentarian in many respects. This is all immensely depressing. But yes, my poetry does have I think an independent character apart from the politics; there’s an equally dominant emotionalism, a confessionalism I suppose (also a bit unfashionable these days), especially related to my upbringing, my family, my own tempestuous mentality and troubled coming of age – but then much of this inevitably seeps back into the politics again: the awakening of my socialist conscience through first-hand experience of poverty in the very real going-to-bed-often-hungry sense, and in the trap my family were in during the Thatcher period, when the successful went up and up and the unlucky were left to pretty much fend for themselves apart from basic state support (even food hampers left for us sometimes by the local Parish: we’ll be returning to such alms of course in Cameron’s new ‘Big Society’ of charity-run public services). Also, starting to write poetry around the age of 16 or 17, while living in a run-down cottage placed contrastingly in a picturesque hamlet in Cornwall with stunning countryside all around, there was, particularly in my earliest poetry, a very strong pastoral aspect, and my earliest influence was John Keats, especially his Odes; William Blake and his more urban social songs; and Shelley, particularly ‘Mask of Anarchy’. I considered myself originally a neo-Romantic poet.
I’m a Romantic at heart, and would describe my politics as essentially Romantic or Christian Socialism (cue William Morris, Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan). I’ve been guilty of indulging in verbalism in poetry many times, not so much a love of as an obsession with words, their sounds and music and tangibility on the page; poetry for me is like painting with words, layering the lines, employing as full and rich a diction as possible, a style I’ve recently coined ‘impasto’, which adorns my latest work, Keir Hardie Street, most obviously; a certain Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood influence, but also the metaphorical social balladry of John Davidson (whose ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ has to be my favourite poem I think); other influences being the lyrical and figurative combinations of Alun Lewis, Harold Monro, and the masterly aphorismic work of Eliot. But in the case of Keir Hardie Street, my most verbally ambitious poem to date, part of its purpose is to convey a verbal impression, as well as a meaning and narrative, through a baroque use of language, a very musical, almost vaudeville verbalism, in keeping with its Edwardian London setting and themes. Other poems have differed in success in the past in terms of whether the use of language in some way overrode the clarity of the meaning, the substance. But it’s something I guard against by making sure to infuse sufficient music, rhythm, tempo, and most of all, emotional depth into a poem, whatever its approach in language is. Whether I succeed more than I fail is up to the critics and readers to decide.
But for me, poetry is above all about the love of language, and too much work I read today in the contemporary mainstream seems almost to demonstrate a contempt for language, or at best, an almost puritanical suspicion of it (while ironically often dealing with deeply self-indulgent, quotidian and hedonistic subject matter). For me, a prime example of this kind of navel-gazing writing is that of Hugo Williams, which makes his comment in coverage of this year’s Forward Prize, which he judged, all the more ironic: he bemoans that too many books are being published in poetry at the moment, 147 entries for the Forward Best Collection, and he talks of many collections seeming to be published ‘just because they’re there’ – this shows a breathtaking lack of self-awareness since his latest volume has been criticised by some for similar reasons, for seeming tokenistic, as if just churning out the same old stuff again, even of being so self-referencing to his previous books, including an actual rewriting of one previous poem, that he must be one of the few poets publishing today who can be accused of self-plagiarising. Not such a solecism if the earlier poetry being re-hashed wasn’t so pedestrian in the first place. But it seems a sign of our times in the UK that hypocrisy reigns supreme, that it is almost trendy nowadays to openly accuse others of what one is guilty of oneself.
What’s depressing however is that those such as Mr Williams just can’t see their own faults. His barbed snub of Derek Walcott – who was not shortlisted for the Forward, coincidentally with Ruth Padel as its Chair this year, who famously smeared the latter in the chase for the Oxford Poetry Professorship last year – was also very telling: he used the term ‘florid’ as a drub of Walcott’s far superior oeuvre, which to me smells of the old green-eyed monster. Between Walcott’s ‘floridness’ and Williams’ quotidian prose-poetry, I’d choose the former every time! What he calls ‘florid’ I would call ‘poetry’; what he calls ‘poetry’, I would call ‘prose’. And Padel’s brazen grand-standing in spite of her previous behaviour which would have irreparably damned practically any other poet who didn’t have her reputation and kudos (and dare I say ‘connections’), is symptomatic of the UK’s current top-down amorality where quite contrary to David Cameron’s ‘do the right thing’ mantra (whatever that means anyway), it’s very cool to cut corners; to cheat (unless one is on benefits of course, in which case, that’s an entirely different ball game, as you’re at the bottom of the heap). That’s capitalism.
Prakash: Thatcherite policies in the 1980s while they dismantled the welfare state also unleashed the forces of production that put Great Britain on the road to becoming a “globalized” developed nation which would not be possible with the good old welfare style of functioning with the state playing the role of a protector or caretaker of citizens. Do you think that such a concept of welfare state can be sustained given the rise in immigrant populations, radical changes in the areas of information and telecommunication technologies and the fact that globalization has perpetuated new forms of individualism to combat any possibility of a combined effort to challenge corporate power?
Alan: Thatcher didn’t actually dismantle the Welfare State, though she probably wanted to, and certainly started chipping away at it as much as she could. What she did dismantle was the British socialist tradition by leading a pogrom on the industrial Labour heartlands and imposing savage legislation to limit the powers of the Unions. Just as today the Con-Dem Government are using the excuse of the Government deficit to bring in a new age of selective austerity and savage cuts on the Welfare State and Public Sector, not to mention planning to privatise much of the NHS, Thatcher’s Government used the excuse of the Winter of Discontent of the late 70s, where debatably Unions were holding the Labour Government to ransom, as a justification for practically wiping all their powers away.
Of course, the British rarely seem to remember the equally horrendous Winter of Discontent of the early 70s – which happened to be under a Tory Government. Memory can be very selective. What Thatcher did to this country was even worse than all the anti-socialist and anti-community practical measures she forced in: she practically killed the spirit of this country, and with it, the hitherto still vital and genuinely progressive post-War socialistic/communitarian consensus. I was born in 1974, but I can remember the late 70s still so vividly, and what I remember, in spite of the proverbial problems and upheavals of those days, was a completely different country, a far better and kinder country, than the one that has mutated since Thatcherism set into the nation’s consciousness and polluted it with all the worst and most philistine traits. I remember a softer country, a little like contemporary Sweden (which I visit quite regularly as my girlfriend is Swedish): a true society where class barriers are far less noticeable, where people respect one another, where there isn’t such a massive wealth divide, where there are proper public services and everyone is willing to contribute significantly more tax in order to fund them. No two tier half-privatised tabloid-brainwashed celebrity-obsessed junk culture as we have in the UK today.
When I was last in Sweden, I found myself feeling a disconcerting sense of nostalgia for England, of missing particularly its inimitable countryside and folkloric heritage, even its historical radicalisms – but on returning of course, I realised that country is more than just a flight away, it’s an age away, it’s in the past; but that past lives on in some of us. It’s an odd and deeply unsettling thing to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country, but I always have, because my political convictions and cultural attitudes are more (Continental) European than English. The island mentality is a curse; it is narrow and quite suffocating; and the British Empire was after all the one on which the sun never sets, since we dismantled it ourselves – and its potent ghost still lingers on, which is a deeply isolating delusion, and one which our new Tory Government are already feeding with their ridiculously out-of-touch patriotism.
To return to Thatcher: ironically, while the monetarism of the 80s might have put the UK more on the global map, She (who must be obeyed) was simultaneously dismantling British industry and manufacturing – cue the Miner’s Strike – and so contributing in advance to the parlous situation we have today where we are an almost entirely unproductive country industrially speaking. This will now disenfranchise our country greatly in the economic global recession. So I would dispute that Thatcherism actually did this country any favours at all, even in the capitalistic sense. It, along with the betrayal and selling-out of New Labour and the Blair years, has ruined our country, body and soul. And to drive the final nail in we have a sham-Coalition, basically Tory administration, gleefully rubbing their hands as they can finally cauterise what’s left of our Welfare State, NHS and Public Sector and damn the consequences. It is also deeply ironic that just as Barack Obama is beginning to construct the USA’s first and belated attempt at a Welfare State and NHS equivalent, we British pioneers of universalism are now starting to dismantle our own.
Prakash: Can you speak about your e-anthology: EMERGENCY VERSE: Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State and in support of a Robin Hood Tax on the City.
Yes, this was something I had to do, and quickly, hence the title, which is also a titular response to the Government’s ‘Emergency Budget’: their plan to cut £11 Billion from our already vastly depleted Welfare State presents the most devastating threat this nation has ever faced, even beyond that of Thatcherism which of course started off this ruinous course along the path of Neo-Con-Liberalism. I predict escalating unemployment, homelessness, protests, riots, serious public discord and community chaos in the months and years ahead if such vicious legislation is not fought and opposed every inch of the way. At the moment, most people in this country seem to be drifting around in some sort of dream world swallowing all the deeply specious spin from the Con-Dems that everything is to do with the previous Government’s deficit, when the reality is the deficit itself is only the tip of the iceberg, and the real black whole has been caused by the crimes of the City and Banking Sector – who incidentally have got off scot free with a mere £2 Billion levy.
It’s staggering that only a year on from the G8 protests in London, the demonstrations in Threadneedle Street, the smashing of RBS windows, the utter disgust and hatred of the Bankers, and then the same scorn thrown at the expenses-cheating MPs, that only two months in to a cobbled-together and electorally illegitimate Con-Dem Coalition without a proper mandate, that many people are now being blindly acquiescent like zombies to the continual mantra of ‘deficit, deficit, deficit’ and ‘unavoidable cuts, unavoidable cuts’, that instead that radical rage of last summer has mutated into a Public Sector-trouncing, anti-benefit claimant attitude at large (cue our new DWP Minister scapegoating those whose ‘curtains are shut during the day’), which is deeply disturbing and utterly uncalled for. Many people have already forgotten the true culprits and benefit cheats of society: the MPs and the Bankers. It’s no surprise the Tories are seeking to Divide and Rule by pitting the Private Sector against the Public, the taxpayer against the benefit claimant (Incapacity Benefit is taxable but recipients don’t pay tax on it as it is below tax threshold – but they are still supposed to declare IB as taxable income to Inland Revenue!) – but what is a bit of a surprise is how swiftly and credulously the public fall for such low tactics (though of course our media Murdochracy plays a big part in that).
A Cabinet of multi-millionaires tell us all to tighten our belts saying ‘we’re all in it together’ – what they actually mean is, ‘they are all in together’ in subsidising the grand-scale theft of the Banking Sector by cutting our Welfare State and tipping thousands of Public Sector workers into unemployment, only to tell most of them thereafter to start volunteering in return for their benefits, or have those cut too. It’s beyond parody or satire this issue, it is quite simply the most outrageous offensive of any previous British Government against its own people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable (certainly not those with the broadest shoulders), simply because they don’t have the guts to stand up to the City and Rupert Murdoch. They then have the temerity to cover all this behind the spin of ‘Big Society’, a new national community – yes, but of slaves! So Emergency Verse is genuinely an emergency campaign: the poets of this country need to get off their prize-hugging podiums for once and back onto their traditional soap boxes and use the power of their words to oppose the oncoming storm of cuts that will devastate this country for generations to come. We are on the brink of becoming not just a Class system but a Caste System.
It’s interesting to note too that, warts and all, during Callaghan’s government of the late 70s, just prior to Thatcher’s narrow 1979 election victory, the UK was the most socially equal country in Europe. Now, after Thatcherism, after New Labour, thirty odd years down the line, we are practically the most socially unequal society in Europe. That is the legacy of Thatcherism, privatization, globalization, deregulation; of free market capitalism (a misnomer anyway, since all markets lead to monopolies). So, I invoke Marx and Engels with the rallying cry Poets of the Nation Unite! And so far, 60 have, contributing some powerful and angry poems to what promises to be as much a petition of poems as poets, a campaign in raw verse, utterly against the Government Budget, against the Welfare State cuts, against privatization of the NHS, and in favour of a Robin Hood Tax on the City and the wealthiest in society. Through such a tax, we could rein in more than enough money to sort out the nation’s debt, without touching anything or anyone else. The Con-Dems are choosing ideologically to do ‘the wrong thing’ (Mr. Cameron), rob the people of the little they have, let the culprits get away with it and continue amassing their gratuitous wealth and continued bonuses, and then have the absolute cheek to say, ‘we’re all in it together’. Until I see David Cameron surrendering his salary and volunteering as Prime Minister while also redistributing some of his inherited wealth to the poorest, he and his cronies have no right whatsoever to say such things. It’s true British patch-over-the-problem hypocrisy of the worst kind.
Emergency Verse will be circulated electronically to all newspapers, journals and Government departments once it is completed, with a covering letter listing the contributors by way of official petition, an open declaration of literary opposition to this Government and its vicious policies, and the promise of further campaigns and public readings to follow. When one thinks of the sacrifices made by British poets during the World Wars, and, most ideologically, in those who volunteered to serve the Republican cause in Spain in the Thirties, who put their very lives where their mouths and words were, I think contributing poems to this campaign is the least the British poets of today can do. Beyond this e-anthology (which will be essentially an electronic book), I will continue to oppose and speak out against this Government through the outlet of the Recusant.
To be continued on the Sociological Imagination tomorrow