[This post was originally published just after the UK general elections.]
This is a longer blog than usual, but then this has been a longer week than usual. Whatever our politics, we’ve all considered what it means to be English – as opposed [sic, apparently] to our other UK nations. For me, the political upheavals became almost inseparable from these two new books – both so different, so English. There is a place for poetry in politics, and these books (along with blogs like Proletarian Poetry, Well Versed and The Stare’s Nest) show how it can be done with depth, subtlety and power.
Jonathan Davidson is a friend of mine but trust me, gentle reader – I would have loved this book if he were not. Humfrey Coningsby: poems, complaints, explanations and demands for satisfaction is a ridiculously long title for a short collection of 24 poems, and like the title the poems are playful, mysterious, deceptively light-handed. Coningsby is a Shropshire squire of the late Elizabethan age. One day in the 1590s he walks out of his house in search of adventure. He leaves on a borrowed horse and comes back four years later
…….with the amble of a man who’d swived and been swived and with some words for it we didn’t know.
Then he’s off again. He meets (ahem) a sultan’s daughter, and travels in search of ‘quaint fowl and other beasts’. He is a gentleman mercenary who fights at the Siege of Strigonium in 1595, and relishes the battle –
This is more like it. I’ve seen men burning like torches, oiled like fresh kebabs, dancing into the river.
So it’s a surprise to find him hiring a car on p12. He seeks in vain for a WiFi signal, he laments that he is not allowed to take his horse onto a business class flight. In poetry, the boundaries of time and language can be porous; all the better to illustrate the consistencies of war, disease and political violence in every century. Coningsby visits Hungary, Syria and Turkey, and returns to tell his fireside stories to an unimpressed English audience whose indifference is timeless: their verdict is that
These are not places but stories, and poor ones at that.
Humfrey Coningsby is a gentle, deep accomplishment and English to its bones. It speaks with understated anger about love, conflict and the tension between those who want to question the world, and those who don’t.
In Steve Ely’s Englaland, the anger is not understated or gentle.
Get into the fuckers!
The ‘Swine’ are shouting in answer to rabble-rousing speeches from two leaders on the battlefield. The leaders in question are Peter Mandelson and the Duke of Wellington, both fighting on the same ground; the battlefield is ‘the playing fields of Eton (Towton, Orgreave, St Peter’s Field).‘ Again, a poet messes with the boundaries of time and space – to remind us that at all times, and in all places, the battle is essentially the same. As for the rabble roused, both in and by the poems…. these are the folk I went to school with. Steve Ely and I are of an age, and grew up about twenty miles apart. We must have both left school at the precise moment that our heartlands became post-industrial. I moved away and didn’t go back for twenty years: Ely plants a spike in the slagheaps and says This is where we stand. Do you want some? And who are we? We are
good lads and brave bitches throwing tongue in congress, giving good head. Who will withstand our mongrel-militia?
Englaland picks up the threads of a tenth-century praise poem for the English army of Aethelstan, written by a Viking bard – and re-imagines it, in language that belongs so precisely to my personal archaeology that I can barely believe someone else witnessed it. Engla-land is the land of the Angles, and the word ‘archaeology’ is the right one. Steve Ely must dream in Old English. Its traditions and rhythms, its balled-fist consonants – he owns them, reclaims them and rejoices in them, as Tony Harrison inhabits ancient Greek drama. The forms are both old and innovative, they are ingested and worn like banners. The Ballad of the Scabs shows the power of that form as a rallying cry; the one-act play Scum of the Earth takes us into battle with a curled lip. In one poem ‘We tracked them to Ryknild, the ridge between the rivers, and rode them down’. In the next, ‘Some galloned-up yokels offered us out. Ginner got jumped in the bogs. We grappled our way back to the car’. It’s the same fight in the same landscape, ‘Bodeltone’ in one poem, ‘Bolton’ in the next – and fought by the same lads. Eleven centuries separate them; nothing else. These English are
five bellied on lager and Southern Fried Chicken, scorning sea bass, samphire and the eighteen varieties of balsamic vinegar. Look at yourselves, reading Chris Ryan and Heat magazine, neglecting Martin Amis, oblivious to Granta. For shame!
This is the crowd I used to drink with in a pub called the Wapentake, which had rubber floors so that they could be hosed down each night. Steve Ely will have a different pub in mind, perhaps the one he calls Eight Miles Out From Nowhere, but this is still a tribe I used to know. It’s a part of what I touch on with ‘kith’, in fact – the dark kith, who know where we came from and know who gave us a kicking in 1985, both literally and metaphorically.
In this book, the members of that tribe are men. These are the footsoldiers, the fighters, the colliers, the egg-collectors (not for nothing has Ely been called ‘Ted Hughes on the rampage’). A woman, if she appears at all, might be a ‘back seat blowjob quean’ – though one poem is devoted to Mrs Duffy, the woman Gordon Brown notoriously called a bigot. But like first-past-the-post voting, there is no rule that says poetry has to represent everything equally. This book tells its truth, from the balls and from the badlands; utterly unsentimental, stinking of testosterone, and for my money utterly true. When Ely writes ‘Self censorship/gagged me just thinking this poem’ I find myself thinking really? Jesus. What would he have written without censorship?
It’s no surprise that Smokestack published this book. Andy Croft is a radical publisher of solid, red-flag integrity. This week sees one of his poets accused of plagiarism but that’s no reflection on him. Meanwhile in the same stable here is Steve Ely showing perfectly how it’s done – how to sink a deep, deep tap root into English language, draw on its nourishment and grow something unshakeable but entirely original. This poetry is influenced, flavoured, coloured and enriched by its predecessors, but is unequivocally its own brilliant new thing. I’ve been compelled to remember a vividly unequal hinterland. I’ve been moved to tears, moved to envy, moved to anger, and above all moved to activism. Get into the fuckers, indeed.
If you voted Conservative in the recent election, the landscapes and characters in this book may be less familiar to you. This book is about those for whom our new government offers nothing but time travel – back to the days before a functioning Welfare State, back to the days when one kind of Englishman took up arms against another; and perhaps into a future where the same is true. As the Viking bard says in the closing poem of this book:
you are the people in the land know you are the people know it is your land.
[Buy Humfrey Coningsby: poems, complaints, explanations and demands for satisfaction from Valley press here. Buy Englaland from Smokestack here. Both sites include a sample poem. I’m reading with Jonathan at Shindig in Leicester on Monday, May 18th]