Ophelia 


Ophelia
We wake to find her

Fingerprints, Saharan dust

On window sills, on

Rooftops, 

Schoolyards,

Graves,

On driveways and motorways,

On pylons and leaves,

On our fingertips,

Faint as ash.

As if to say:

See, there is a land 

Out there

Across the sea,

Beyond the screen of your TV,

And it’s real,

And it’s closer than you think,

How easy I can bring it

To your feet.

IOB 16/10/17

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Pantomimes 


It was an illusion, walking
home afterwards, eyes wild wet.
The moon was large and Hollywood yellow
and beneath this,
in a bus shelter, two teens kiss,
lit by the shelter light
but from this angle, from Sorrow Hill,
I cannot see the fluorescent strip and so
it looks as though they are lit by the moon,
this paper moon that the clouds that rain on me
have yet to reach.
I want to laugh, to shout to them that
this isn’t real, that the parents have
left and the caretakers of this world will
stack the chairs and take down and fold
away this paper moon before this
kiss dries on your lips,                  grows old.

IOB 2017

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There is a light. How poetry is helping us find hope this week in Manchester

I teach English in an inner-city Manchester school. It’s been a tough week. Monday night’s terrorist attack created a backdrop of sirens, questions and uncertainty. Our school is as diverse as the wider city, we have a palette of pupils from all corners of the globe, from the far-East, from Asia, from the Middle East, from Europe. All united in Manchester. As one of my Year 7 pupils said in a lesson this week ‘We are all different raindrops from the same cloud.’ Apt. ‘Some are born here, some drawn here, but they all call it home,’ as Tony Walsh read, in his now widely-shared poem from the vigil on the steps of Manchester town hall. But despite the uncertainty, the anxiety, the tension, our kids have been remarkably unfazed. As the police helicopters circled above and the news came streaming in of arrests and controlled-explosions in their neighbourhoods, they shrugged it off, steeled against it. There was sorrow for the victims, and concern for the future, but a complete unwillingness to be divided. And one of the things that has played an important part in this resolve and resilience, is poetry.

Poetry helps us to understand complex emotions, events and circumstances. As Manchester poet Lemn Sissay explained in a BBC interview in 2015:

“Poetry can serve a person just by being written and read out at a funeral or a wedding or at the birth of a child. […] Poetry has a bridge between the spiritual and the physical. That’s why it’s in the Bible, that’s why it’s in the Qur’an, that’s why the Buddhist faith uses it […] when you feel a desperate need for that bridge […] It’s because poetry is the bridge between now and then, the past and the future, it’s an incredibly powerful thing and it is around us all the time.”

It certainly helped me on the morning after the attack, when I was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to find hope. Like many I suppose, one of the first places I looked to as the terrible news reeled in was Twitter. It was alive with alerts, news, opinion, a dizzying whir. And then I found this, from Manchester poet Mike Garry, and it was like stepping into a quiet room from the manic street, a chapel:

FullSizeRender (1)

A simple haiku that says so much. And the form, the restrained syllables, both concentrates the image and yet calms, gives space. It’s a deep breath. And not a syllable is wasted, the power in the word ‘solid’, the tragedy in the word ‘beauty’. I felt a surge within, civic pride and the realisation of the power that words can have in the most difficult of times.  I decided that would be the first thing my pupils would see when they came in to my classroom that day, Mike’s haiku on the board. My first class was Year 8.

I might have gone a bit overboard. Having the poem on the board was one thing, blasting out Joy Divisions ‘Atmosphere’ as the kids came in was another. But Curtis’s lyrics carried a new resonance. ‘Don’t walk away, don’t turn away in silence. See the danger, always danger, endless talking, life rebuilding, don’t walk away.’

‘Sir, can we listen to Ariana Grande instead?’

‘Ok.’

But it was the poem that opened the conversation, that broke the ice. They were interested in the image of the arms wide open. We talked about Manchester’s history, of immigration, of multiculturalism. They picked up on how that will not be shaken by the acts of the terrorist, how we can’t let it. They loved the idea of ‘beauty amongst ugliness’, and gave their opinions on what the ugliness could be. Is it the act of terror, specifically? Is it the mindset of the people responsible? One kid even suggested it could be modern life, global conflicts, poverty. The conversation flowed, triggered by poetry.

I played them the video of Mike’s poem ‘The Threads That Weave’. Commissioned by MUFC in 2012, it now holds new resonance, an uplifting hymn for the city.

They listened in silence and there was a spontaneous round of applause at the end. It’s a powerful piece of work and accessible and going through it helped unlock further discussion and understanding. The metaphors in the poem made it easier to comprehend ideas about the city. ‘We are the sign of the cross,’ Mike reads, ‘temples, synagogues and mosques.’ We picked apart the imagery. ‘We are the warp and weft.’ I showed them images of how warp and weft works in textiles, they instantly understood the point Mike makes. ‘It’s like we’re different but all part of the same thing, isn’t it? And stronger together, like threads in a material.’ I played the poem every lesson that day and each class brought new interpretations, new understanding. My Year 9 group talked about the line ‘We are cotton sewn through history,’ and we were discussing how the Mancunian spirit prevails, runs through each generation. ‘Unbreakable,’ a boy said. I asked him to explain. He told the class how the thread is strong and even stronger when it sewn through fabric, stitching together different pieces, like different communities, stronger together. Perceptive stuff, and again it was the poetry that unlocked it.

By the end of the first lesson that day, my Year 8 pupils had constructed their own poem, using Mike Garry’s approach. They each wrote a metaphor that expressed their feelings about the city. We wrote them on strips of coloured paper and collated them. When we read it out, each pupil reading their own line, it was an emotional experience. There were a few giggles and a bit of awkwardness at first, but a couple of lines in and there was a confidence in the room, a charged atmosphere. We finished it and again there was applause, a relief. We had created something out of the confusion and tension of the morning, untangled the thoughts and brought something positive to light. And again it was poetry that enabled it, as the sirens flared again outside.

Extracts from their collective poem, ‘This Is Manchester’:

The next day we continued, picking apart the poetry, using it as a starting point. The horror of what happened was starting to sink in, some pupils wanted to talk about it, others didn’t. Poetry offered a proxy, a way of starting to discuss and process further what had happened without the heavy or uncomfortable challenge of talking directly about it, unless they wanted to. Fears of division in the community were set aside by watching footage from the vigil, the inspiring show of solidarity of the Manchester community, with thousands gathered in the sunlight, showing the world that the city would not be plunged into division. And again, poetry gave voice to it the most powerfully, with Tony Walsh’s poem summing up the grit, the determination, the character of the city.

Again the kids listened and again they burst into applause, the poem and the performance putting into words the resolve we all so desperately need. Some pupils recognised Tony, we invited him into school a couple of years ago to help a group of pupils write poetry about the city. It was hugely successful and the pupils wrote some fantastic poems with him, some of which can be found here.

I’m not sure what will happen in the weeks to come, as the net draws in on the terrorist network and the community is put under even more pressure but I do know that as teachers we need to be ready to talk about it. Poetry isn’t everything, obviously. There is a lot of work to be done in schools and in the community to reassure, to unite, to prevent division and promote cohesion, but it starts with dialogue and understanding and poetry is a good starting place.

rainbows

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Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

the ghost of shakespeare

The ghost of William Shakespeare to a pupil who accidentally conjures him whilst frantically writing an essay at 3 o’clock in the morning:

“Don’t wrap me up in the chains

of your poxy writing frames

or pick at my remains with your

‘point-evidence-explain’

or prod at my pentameters

or filter out my metaphors

without first knowing how they make you FEEL.

And don’t drain my soliloquies

with clinical analysis

or paraphrase some essayist

like some amateur ventriloquist,

just get thee to a library

and find something to LOVE.

 

The chances are the ghost of me

is in those pages too,

and, for now,

that’s enough,

so get gone

(I’ll be waiting for you).”

 

IOB 09.07.16

[Picture by Chris Beatrice, from the cover of Read Magazine, http://www.theispot.com/whatsnew/2010/12/chris-beatrice-inspired-by-shakespeare.htm]
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Fourth Generation Verbs

Irish Navigators, Manchester Ship Canal

A poem about ancestry and the distances between us, inspired by Tony Walsh

I never really thought about my own Irish ancestry, growing up in Manchester. You didn’t really have to. It was everywhere; from the surnames in the register at school to the voices in the pubs I worked in whilst at college, I never thought of it as separate in anyway from the bricks and mortar of the city; it was a natural part of Manchester. Your name is something you see on the front of exercise books in your own hand, something written endless times but rarely studied. I didn’t recognise it as Irish until much later.

My granddad on my Dad’s side was a distant figure, and it was only when he died that my Dad really talked about him and about his family background. His story is patchy, shadowy, reserved for the hazy end of nights in the pub, before the lights come on and you’re asked to leave. A kind of half-remembered song. Mt granddad was a soldier, saw action in WW2 and was never quite the same. His own father and his Irish grandfather belong to the smoky, cobbled streets of Manchester and Salford in the blackened mill towns of yesterday. Originally from Cork (we think), my great grandfather (or is it great-great grandfather?) came across to England to work on the Manchester Ship Canal, like so many others. And that’s about as much as I know. As a kid, I asked my dad but he was always sketchy, he talked about that generation of men in vague terms, as a kind of mythical race. He sketched a brief outline for me of tough men, digging canals, building roads and constructing the city.

I had the privilege a year or two ago of hearing poet Tony Walsh read his brilliant poem ‘Silver Ribbons’ at the People’s History Museum. What struck me about the piece, a touching account of the lives of ‘the navigators’, the men who dug the Manchester Ship Canal, was that he didn’t present them as this army of uniform men; he gave them individual voices, brought them to life. He talks of individuals, of  “Kennedy, a muck-shifter, the strongest in the land,” before stinging us with lines such as “we all put in a shilling on the day he lost his hand.” He carves out this montage of men, it’s like flicking through a photograph album, briefly lighting these faces from the dark pages of history, a bittersweet account of “husbands, fathers, brothers,” and “broken men sent home again.”

The poem struck a chord with me, and I wanted to write something, but felt unqualified – unlike Tony, my own Irish ancestry is further back, lost. So, I decided to write something about that, about the distance generated when the second generation becomes third and fourth and the voices of ancestry become buried. I dedicate this poem to Tony Walsh and all those descended from ‘the navigators.’ There’s a recording of Tony’s poem, ‘Silver Ribbons’ online here. And if you haven’t experienced Tony Walsh‘s poetry, go see him.

 

Fourth Generation Verbs

 

The verb he used that afternoon in History,

after English, was ‘settled’.

It sat in my mouth in the past tense

all the way home, like soil.

Settled. Like sediment, in rivers

swollen by storms.

I conjured up faces of the grandparents

of grandparents I barely knew

and when I got home and asked you,

you talked of them vaguely

with rough handed verb phrases,

dug out, asphalted, built.

 

I knelt in the yard, felt the moss between the paving flags,

scratched at the dirt, at thin tufts of grass.

They wouldn’t have been here

to this new estate, built when I was small

on imported sand, on stony fields,

no bones in this topsoil.

At night, I dream of reaching down,

down beneath the flags,

stretching through worms

to the roots of dead trees, long overturned,

where maybe once they rested,

by rivers, fished, held hands,

kissed.

 

IOB 12.06.16

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For the love of Love On The Dole: A love-letter to Walter Greenwood, via my granddad. And Morrissey

hanky park

Hanky Park: the Salford skyline as depicted in the 1941 film version of Love On The Dole

I’m a firm believer that books wait for you. Like fishing in reverse, they let you pick them, pull them down from the shelf, let you start them, let you in, sometimes let you devour them in a single sitting; or they might toy with you first, snag, sometimes completely unhook you, throw you back, until you’re ready to be caught.

I first came across Walter Greenwood’s ‘Love On The Dole’ when I was in my late teens. My granddad recommended it to me, during a conversation one rainy Saturday afternoon in the pub about my beloved Smiths. I spouted my adolescent critical analysis of the entire  Morrissey back-catalogue whilst he politely pretended to listen, picking the non-winners for the 3.30 at Cheltenham.  He’d never heard of them, of course. But when I started dropping references to Morrissey’s influences, to Shelagh Delaney and Alan Sillitoe (as if I’d actually read them), he looked up from his paper and recommended Greenwood. My granddad wasn’t much of a reader, but he’d read Greenwood’s novel after watching the film, when it was released in the early 1940s. It strikes me now that when he read the novel, he’d have been about the age I was when we had that conversation.

My granddad was brought up in Newcastle, during the Depression. A novel, not only set in the ‘hungry thirties’, but written during it, and serving as a lasting reminder of the harrowing effects of poverty, must have struck a chord with him. Here was a novel that reflected the gaslit world he had escaped into the Army from. Though the novel is set far from Newcastle, in the gaunt underworld of 1930s Hanky Park, Salford, poverty is universal. No wonder the novel was hugely successful, Hanky Park could be Liverpool, or as easily the East End.He must have seen something of his hometown in the dark, austere streets of the novel. I never got a chance to ask him.

For me, the novel was a million miles away. My 1997 Manchester was all neon lights, Oasis and the false new dawn of Tony Blair. It was a time of optimism; the city had dusted itself off from the 1996 IRA bombing and had drawn up a plan for renewal. The Tories were a thing of the past, terrifying tales to tell your own grandchildren when the time came. So, when I picked up the novel myself (I’d borrowed it from the library – probably alongside some New Order CDs and Bez’s Biography), it didn’t resonate immediately. A few pages in and I stalled.

Now, parts of the opening are all too familiar.

On either side of (the street) are other streets, mazes, jungles, of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness…

I returned to Love On The Dole only recently, years after my granddad died. This time, it was different, I was hooked. I regret not being able to share it with him. And it’s as relevant now, in post-Blair austerity Britain, as it ever was.

We can recognise in characters such as the grim Mr Pryce, the local pawnshop tyrant, and his tributary Mrs Nattle, the vultures of poverty that circle our own high streets, the payday loan companies and  exchange stores that serve as sad reminders that poverty still has its unscrupulous profiteers, now more than ever. Just as our own bookies and casinos squat on the high street, booming as we grasp at straws to rescue ourselves from austerity misery, the character Sam Grundy, Greenwood’s sleazy bookmaker, appears to be one of the only characters to prosper as the others flounder in unemployment and crippling cuts to welfare. Even the thuggish Ned Narkey, almost pitiful in his ironic lack of power and influence, is irked by Grundy’s ill-gotten wealth:

Instantly he appreciated Grundy’s prosperity, its easy source, the smug complacency of the man, his affluence, influence and ability to indulge his every whim. Comparing it with his own barren indigence made his poverty doubly maddening. Blind hate and envy dominated him; his impulse was to snatch at Grundy’s throat, fling him to the floor and kick his brains out…

Greenwood shows us not only the outwardly obvious consequences of poverty: the ragged clothes, the drawn faces, the dirt and grime, poignantly illustrated in Jack Lindsay, the former apprentice, “a dismal, depressing young fellow shuffling about with a slouching gait in broken boots and shabby suit,” who, ghost-like, progresses no further than the street corner he despondently frequents; but also the deep psychological damage that poverty wields, particularly on men and on masculine identity. Ahead of his time, Greenwood alerts us to the identity-crisis men faced, and would face even moreso towards the end of the century, as the masculine industries of coal and steel crumbled, as the foundries and pits closed, leaving a void, filled only with self-doubt and self-loathing:

It got you slowly, with the slippered stealth of an unsuspected, malignant disease. You fell into the habit of slouching, of putting your hands into your pockets and keeping them there; of glancing at people, furtively, ashamed of your secret, until you fancied that everybody eyed you with suspicion. You knew that your shabbiness betrayed you; it was apparent for all to see. You prayed for the winter evenings and the kindly darkness. Darkness, poverty’s cloak.

For Harry, the novel’s hapless hero, this frustration and despair is exacerbated of course by his relationship with Helen, his childhood sweetheart. We see him fall from the hubristic apprentice with a spring in his step to the unemployed man; we share in his panic, as he is suddenly propelled into the world of fatherhood, of responsibility, of the grinding poverty his parents are powerless to keep him from:

He was severed from the old way of life at home, now. Mother, father and sister were as strangers […] He would soon be a father himself! The thought made him scared, guiltily scared. He marvelled at Helen’s seeming composure. She did not seem at all disturbed now that they were married. He, a father though! He a silly, incompetent boy, dressed in the ill-fitting clothes of manhood.

But it’s the women of the novel, I think, that shine through. From Dorbell, Nattle and Jike, hovering around like the three witches of Macbeth, interspersing the narrative with whiskey-breathed commentaries, to my favourite, stout Mrs Bull, the hard-faced ‘uncertified midwife and layer out of the dead’. In Bull, Greenwood provides the blueprint for the fearless Northern matriarch, the Elsie Tanners and Ena Sharples of the world. In my favourite scene, Bull rebuffs the futile requests of the local ‘Good Samaritan’ clothing company rep, seeking the weekly instalment in vain:

She sat at her kitchen table, jug and glass in hand: ‘Call next week, lad. Ah broke teetotal last night,’ with assurance: ‘Ah’ll have it for y’ when y’ call agen. Mrs Cranford’s expectin’ o’ Tuesday, an’ owld Jack Tuttle won’t last week out. Eigh, igh, ho, hum! Poooor owld Jack,’ a guzzle at the glass.

Brilliantly, when the collector sulkily concedes defeat, lamenting that Bull will land him in trouble, she replies “Aach, trouble, eh? Tha’ll thrive on it when tha gets as owld as me.” This is more than comic relief that Bull lends the novel, it’s hope; it’s the grit that defies the spectre of poverty.

Arguably, it’s the women of the novel who remain the strongest, the most defiant. Whether through the shrewd business dealings of Mrs Nattle, the go-between for Pryce’s pawnshop, or Mrs Bulls’s gruff put-downs and blunt sermons (“Ah’ve had no eddication but Ah do know that there ne’er was parson breathed wot preached sermon about resurrection on empty belly, an’ mine’s bin empty many a time.”), or through Sally Hardcastle’s final sacrifice made to keep her family afloat, it’s the women who find an inner steel when things fall apart. “Gor blimey,” says Mrs Bull, “they think we’re magicians, an’ Ah ain’t sure that we ain’t.”

Ultimately, Love On The Dole is a devastating celebration of working-class resolve; on the one hand it laments and warns of the evils of poverty, yet it also reminds us that, despite the Pryces and Wonga.coms of the world, the Cash Generators or Sam Grundys, there is, to crassly paraphrase a Morrissey lyric, a gaslight that never goes out. (ouch)

I loved it. My granddad loved it, though I never got to find out why. So, if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents around and they recommend a book, read it. Even if you’re not ready. Good books will wait.

 

 

IOB 10.03.2016

 

 

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Syrian Snow

Syrian snow

lands on homes,

roofless bones of brick.

It lands on barbed wire fences,

photographed in yesterday’s news.
Syrian snow

falls on the boats

of those whose only chance is to go.

It lands in Greece,

in Munich,

in Paris,

is carried across the Channel

to you

and me

and we turn over the TV,

close the door,

let it melt.
Syrian snow

tastes like ghosts,

like ash, like

Holocausts.
IOB 5.3.15

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