Interview with Alan Morrison (part 2)

Prakash: The media has made it terribly unfashionable to use words like “socialist” or “communist” or “leftist.” In fact any seriously pro-poor position makes it difficult for writers and researchers to find a platform to their work. How do you describe yourself and what kind of a platform have you been able to create for yourself to talk about your work and find an audience for it?

The media is half the problem as in any capitalist society; most of our national newspapers are currently like a kind of Falangist phalanx – the worst are of course under Murdoch’s plutocracy, the nastiest being the Sun, News of the World and the deeply insidious Mail. The Telegraph is for the intelligent Tory (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but still shamelessly right-wing, as is the Times, which is a truly arrogant and unpleasant paper. The Left only has the Morning Star, which I read. The Guardian has long degenerated into a trendified muesli-munching realpolitik for the chattering classes, more pink than red, lately yellow, but then back to pink after the Lib Dems betrayed the British electorate to the devastation of a Tory administration. Yes, you never hear the word ‘socialist’ anymore; now it’s euphemised as ‘progressive’ or ‘centre-left’ or ‘left-of-centre’ – anything to appease the middle-classes and erase images of Union banners and class struggle. A fellow left-wing friend of mine once coined it perfectly: he said being a socialist these days in the UK is like being a Jedi, a Ben Kenobi hiding out in a hermitic wilderness replete with figurative cowl. But the thing to remember about the Jedi is they all have lightsabers tucked away.

I’m a socialist; in that I believe in fundamental human equality, in every individual’s right to a home and to food in their belly; I believe in true equality of opportunity, in social meritocracy; I believe that it should be a fundamental right of all people to have homes, irrespective of whether they have employment or not – in this country it’s almost impossible to secure work if one is homeless anyway.  The more I visit Sweden, the more backward, almost feudalistic I perceive the UK with its archaic class system, the farce of titles and honours, aristocracy and monarchy – one would think we’d never even had a Welfare State or NHS or one of Europe’s most constructively left-wing Governments between 1945 and 1951 under Clement Attlee. Thanks to Thatcherism, the path to greater social equality was abruptly truncated in the 80s and has never recovered since. New Labour shamefully continued the Thatcherite revolution and apart from one or two tokenistic left-of-centre pieces of legislation – like the minimum wage, which is still not a living wage – left this country with a still enormous wealth divide, and the worst mortality rates for the poor since the Thirties so I’ve read. By pursuing further privatisation initiatives in the Public Sector, they also cleared the way for the Tories to come in and finish the job off.

We had a brief window of hope after the election with the potential Rainbow Coalition of left-of-centre parties – including the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green, Caroline Lucas of Brighton Pavilion being possibly the best and only truly socialist MP we now have – but seemingly a combination of lack of will on both Labour’s and Nick Clegg’s parts, in spite of Gordon Brown quite admirably stepping down as Prime Minister, has led to the most absurdly ill-matched Coalition in British political history: a Coalition of Opposites, since the Lib Dems were, at the time of the election, the most left-wing party left in Parliament – yet they joined with the most right-wing! It makes no sense, except to finally conclude with much regret and disappointment that the Lib Dems really are the unprincipled opportunists the two main parties always accused them of being. Shame on Nick Clegg – from loud-hailing electoral radical to Tory prop within a matter of weeks – and the rest of the Lib Dems for betraying this country to what is already proving to be the most out-of-touch and ruthless administration we’ve seen since Thatcher’s.

In terms of finding a platform for my political poetry, I never deluded myself that I would find one within the very insular and closed-ranked mainstream – not only because it is unfashionable to be too political in poetry today, as in anything, including politics! – but also because stylistically my poetry comes from a completely different tradition to that currently dominant in British poetry. Whereas most fashionable contemporary poetry seems to be descended from lines drawn from the Irish school of the 60s onwards, certain post-confessional American influences, English and Welsh parochialism of the likes of Norman Nicholson, RS Thomas, Betjeman and Larkin, and Georgianism, I trace my own stylistic links back through the political poetry of the Auden/Spender school, through Eliotonian Modernism, the Anglo-Welsh ‘khaki poetry’ of Alun Lewis, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg et al, the ‘shadow Georgians’ of the likes of Harold Monro and WH Davies, through to the Rhymers’ Club of John Davidson et al, Thomas Hardy, and back to the Romantics, then Blake of course, possibly as far as Milton and the political pamphleteers Gerrard Winstanley and John Lilburne. Some of my influences are Anglo-Scot – Davidson, Monro – and though I am third generation English, I count myself Anglo-Scot in terms of ancestry and bloodline, both my father’s and mother’s sides of the family being Scottish about three generations back; Morrison is a clan name of course (I’m apparently entitled to wear the kilt), and my ancestors along that line were mostly probably Scottish crofters (the Morrisons were also ancient Bards to the MacLeod clan).

So mine is a kind of cross-over poetic heritage, it just so happens it’s not particularly fashionable at the current time but I suspect it may be again in the future. I believe poetry needs to tackle the Big themes – for a Big Society!? – such as society, politics, poverty, class struggle (because we are now blatantly engaged in a legislative Class War again in this country), mental illness, history, love, fate, death. Is it any wonder the general public have gone off poetry for so long now when the average poem in a national supplement is often some self-indulgent, quotidian meditation on the tedium of the literary middle-class lifestyle, replete very often with rather gauche sexual innuendo, fruit metaphors, dull and insipid navel-gazing that only the poets and their friends seem to like but not many other people. It’s so ironic since only a brief scan through the poetry being published by legion smaller presses in this country shows just how rich, diverse and relevant much contemporary poetry actually is, it’s just that it only seems to be the more diluted and non-committal prosaic and knowingly ironic writing on the whole that seems to be popular with the bigger imprints and media outlets. It’s deeply puzzling, although I think further into my own generation, things are starting to change a bit, poets are starting to question the establishment more. I set up the Recusant precisely to champion distinctive poetry and writing that stands out from and at a tilt to the madding crowd of the mainstream (the title basically means ‘to not conform to something one doesn’t like or agree with’, derived from the old term for secretly practising Catholics during early Protestantism).

I knew I was always going to be taking a difficult path with my own work, chiefly because I wasn’t prepared to water it down and compromise its purpose to fit with current fashions. Fortunately early on I became involved with a shadow poetry network which sought to promote and publish unconventional and distinctive writing, often with a left-wing undercurrent, and my earliest collections came out as limited edition pamphlets through Simon Jenner’s Waterloo and Barry Tebb’s radical Sixties Press. It was a slow process but worth it, since I feel by and large I’ve kept the integrity of my work against all the odds and against all the superficial temptations  of conforming to secure quick recognition. For me, to write what one’s heart is not in is utterly pointless, better not be a poet at all. Too many poets today seem to unquestioningly subordinate their true voices to the whims of bigger publishers and prize panels, I suppose the proverbial Trojan Horse approach – but nine times out of ten, once the Horse gets through into the sunny uplands of literary celebrity, it has long since emptied and ends up ringing hollow.

I was lucky to get offered a full collection at 32, relatively young these days, especially for poets who don’t go through the smoother channels of UEA-style courses and the like. This was a chancing small press newly emerging, Paula Brown Publishing (who sadly since went bankrupt), who were at that early stage of taking risks, and produced a very generously sized book for me, which was a tacit early Collected Poems really, since it included most of my entire oeuvre up to that date (1991-2006). Amazingly, The Mansion Gardens broke through some of the establishment barriers, garnering significant critical praise in journals, most notably from William Oxley in The London Magazine of Sebastian Barker. Almost simultaneously, through the years, my play for voices Picaresque had been performed and given significant notices. 2009 saw my second full collection published by Waterloo Press, which garnered even better reviews in the likes of Stride, Tears in the Fence, The Journal and other magazines and was shortlisted for Purple Patch Best Collection 2009.

Keir Hardie Street (officially published in March 2010), has also since received much critical praise; an original shorter draft of it appeared at the back of The Mansion Gardens, but Andy Croft of Smokestack Books offered to republish it in its new extended form alongside another reworked older published long poem, ‘Clocking-in for the Witching Hour’ (originally Sixties Press, 2004).  Smokestack felt like the natural home for these, my two most political long poems to date: it is precisely presses such as Smokestack, which presents itself as a champion of radical British poetry, that helps poets such as myself find a platform in an otherwise very streamlined and media-packaged poetry scene.

I am now working on my next volume of smaller poems, again for Waterloo Press, which will come out early next year under the title Blaze a Vanishing. Beyond that, I anticipate more long poems, since it’s my favourite medium; I am currently working on one addressing the current ‘Big Society’, working title Ripe, an excerpt from which will be included in Emergency Verse – it will probably be seen in some ways as an echo – though entirely unconscious, since I’ve only just read it – of Michael Horovitz’s A New Wasteland, which is a masterly work, a veritable Bible of the Left, and which I will be excerpting too with the poet’s permission in Emergency Verse. I also have a series of poems written specifically around my time as Poet-in-Residence at Mill View Psychiatric Hospital, Captive Dragons, which will probably appear next year at some point in pamphlet form, though I don’t know with which imprint as yet. I am also planning on finishing a new play for voices, The Heaven Thieves, about an early 20th century social altruist who owns a charity which clothes and feeds the local poor but who can’t stand the sound of people eating, which I hope will prove to be a more Swiftian, satirical and philosophical dissection of the socialist mentality than anything I’ve written before. It is basically written as a blank verse-play in the template of Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.

Prakash: Would Alan Morrison be Alan Morrison without the poetry?

It’s almost impossible to answer this, since poetry, expressing myself through words and using words to orchestrate their own kind of music, feels like an inseparable part of my identity; poetry is my lifeblood, it’s what I go to sleep thinking about, what I wake up thinking about. It’s probably not healthy to be like that, but it seems I have no choice. It’s how I’ve been made and how the sum of my experiences in life so far seem to have shaped me. There’s never been any other choice for me but to doggedly pursue my poetry no matter what life throws at me. But I think there is another Alan Morrison hidden away deep inside me, the original article, ironically a natural clown, an amalgam of highly sensitive but tigerish energies (I call myself ‘the nervous tiger’), and though I say it myself (many others do too), a burdensomely large heart, too large to bear sometimes.

Ever since I can remember I’ve found it very easy to love, to feel sorry for or pity others, which I suppose is where my heart-on-sleeve socialism spawns from; I’d say I’ve always been a little morbidly addicted to sadness, ever since I was a child. I think sometimes that small bewildered but irrepressibly expressive Alan tries to climb out from the rather more gloomy, serious-minded, angry ranter that’s clouded him since, who is prone to reclusion and obsessiveness (though the latter is a symptom of the obsessional neurosis I’ve suffered from since childhood, a less-exposed nuance of OCD, which is known as Pure-O; one of my earliest long poems, Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever, is all about my formative years and the development of this incapacitating egodystonic illness which has significantly affected my life). I would say though that the Alan Morrison I have become would not be the same one without the poetry; and without the poetry, I’m not sure Alan Morrison would be here today at all – it’s been my true lifeline.

Prakash: What are the things in your life that make you who you are?

Impossible to say without trying to be entirely self-objective, which is probably impossible. Being an obsessional and somewhat melodramatic thinker, I always say, unlike Alice, I try to think three possible things before breakfast. I suppose the poetry of course makes me the poet, though I feel it is up to others to use that term, not oneself, since it is a high title to claim for anyone; even if true poets actually self-anoint and don’t rely on panels to tell them they’re poets. I live entombed in books, which probably makes me quite bookish, though I don’t see myself that way. I’m as passionate about music – of many kinds – as I am about literature; I think most poets are frustrated song-writers – that is, until they discover the full musical power of words. But writing poetry is certainly its own kind of composition.

Being the archetypal Cancerian, I am very shy, hyper-sensitive, and extremely homebirdish; I like to be among familiar things, I like peace and quiet, space to think and write. I am intrinsically monogamous, and naturally treat any relationship as if it is the last (though have been proved wrong on two previous occasions). I am very private, quite sceptical of people, and, I hate to say, occasionally misanthropic (like most socialists at heart, since we not only want society to change, we want people to change too). But if ever anyone needs my help, no matter who it is, the door will be open to them; I would never turn anyone away who needed my help. I like to think it’s that old parable of the Good Samaritan which I’ve never been able to shake off from my school days when we were very much weaned on such things, having been to a Catholic primary school called English Martyrs in Worthing, my years at which left a lasting impression on my mind and my views on the world. I am a non-practising, lapsed Catholic; but I am a believer, at least in the survival of the human personality beyond the death of the body, but my Christian beliefs are more in line with Baptist ideas than any other denomination (particularly the belief in universal salvation of the likes of Pelagius – I cannot stand Calvinism or extreme evangelicalism, and see Capitalism very much as a material-based Calvinism. Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism being a key text in this, I have originally gone to University in Reading to study Sociology, though I later switched to Ancient History, and found how little had changed).

I’m certainly a dreamer, a Romantic in the idealistic sense, an egalitarian, a believer in true meritocracy of ability but emphatically not in any material sense – I believe in universal material equality; I’m distinctly un-materialistic, my only real possessions being books and music – but I do like comfortable surroundings and a bit of ornamental clutter too; by nature I’m quite conservative funnily enough, but socially and politically, quite the other thing altogether, and it was the direct experience of poverty that converted me to the light of socialism. I’m a nostalgist to my core: most of my tastes are historical, in literature, art, music, television, film, in pretty much anything. I think we have to delve deep into the past in order to trace the future. Mentally and ideologically, I’m a refugee of the Seventies really; I’ve always felt I was born either way after or way before my time, and could easily see myself at the turn of the 20th century as, well, basically, exactly the person I am today, except fitting in a little better. I’ve no interest in money, never have had, except as a means to secure more freedom and time for my writing pursuits – time is definitely the most precious commodity in life. Ultimately, I’m one of life’s volunteers, I need to be self-autonomous, I can’t be slotted into routines, I’m uninterested in material rewards, I simply need space and time and love in which to flourish and create. Rather a pity, therefore, that I live in such an oppositely motivated society.

But in terms of what in my life makes me who I am, well, memories do really, memories of injustices, poverty, struggle, alienation, not fitting in, absences – I was often absent from school as a boy, partly due to my illness – and ‘shadows’ and ‘ghosts’ have always played a part in my consciousness as sort of self-motifs; I seek to make a mark through the shadow of my words if you like, impressing myself through my writing, the anonymity of being a writer has always appealed to me, the ability to engage publicly through publishing without having to prostitute one’s own personality. I like to keep myself as private as possible. There’s always been a tension here of course: wanting to both be in the shade and out in the sun at the same time. Like another Cancerian, George Bernard Shaw, life for me is indeed a matter of ‘so little time, so much to do’. And there really is so much to do.

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