Posts Tagged ‘Thatcher’s Britain’

Carol Ann Duffy: Education for Leisure

June 23, 2019

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

 

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

 

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

 

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

 

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

 

As I seem, for some reason, to be channelling Carol Ann Duffy at the moment – my post last autumn on The Wound in Time has been my most popular post ever (I would love to know why) – I thought I’d write about another of her poems which I’ve always liked a lot.

Duffy always inveighed against Thatcherism and its consequences, especially for those overlooked by society, and here she gets inside the head of an asocial misfit who feels he has no future in Britain. It’s shocking, powerful, and always provoked debate when we studied it in class in preparation for GCSE.

There’s nothing complex about the language, form or structure of this poem, reflecting the thoughts and mindset of the speaker perhaps: five simple, four-line stanzas and no discernible rhyme-scheme; the narrative is linear. So how does the poem work, and where does it derive its power from?

Immediacy in the opening line: today, and the idea of killing, muted a little by something, then ratcheted up a notch by the full stop, pause and subsequent one-word sentence Anything. The rhyme with the previous word helps the effect, too. The first person is emphasised throughout: count the recurrences of I, me, my. Look at how the I comes at the start of sentences and at the beginnings of lines: extra emphasis there. And there is power in the determination to play God. Nothing special about the day except that the speaker seems to have reached breaking-point: the image of boredom stirring in the streets is vivid, oxymoronic, fits in with the character of the speaker which is gradually built up.

Violence at the start of the second stanza, as well as a disgusting image. The Shakespeare reference is wonderful (King Lear: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods | They kill us for their sport), reflecting the speaker’s condition, and startling up, perhaps, with the idea that he’s not an unintelligent young man, having studied and understood some literature… then flinging the other language back at us in a witty comparison. We’ve all written our name in mist on glass at some point in our childhood; the speaker breathes out talent. What is Duffy doing with her character here?

Could he be a genius? The real issue is he’s one of many to whom society has not given a chance, for whatever reason. Then we’re back with his desire, intention to make an impact, but he doesn’t know how: something’s world will be changed, though. There is a growing sense of the sinister as the cat avoids him.

More violence: destruction of the goldfish, in the bog: that monosyllable, as well as the slang, the vulgarity of the word, heighten the sense of menace. He has been marauding against dumb creatures so far, but we sense something more. Again a glimpse of his intelligence, as he quotes the Bible: I see that it is good. ‘And God saw that it was good’ is a phrase repeated several times during the creation story in Genesis.

There is the old ritual – which I remember well from my own student days – you had to go to the local employment office to sign on as available to work, in order to receive unemployment or supplementary benefit if you weren’t actually working. Remember the speaker has talent, is a genius: he has an autograph!

Alone back home. Has he done for the budgie now? The radio-station fails to recognise the superstar, and the presumably seven-second delay means his words are never actually broadcast. Then the menace becomes real as he goes out: are the glittering pavements meant to remind us of Hollywood? The final half-line is superb, the perfect ending via the shift in the personal pronoun as the speaker connects specifically, individually with the reader: I touch your arm.

In many ways this seems a rather simple poem. The genius is in the brief but vivid creation of a character and a specific situation or moment; the poet faces us with something we would never have thought to imagine or visualise for ourselves, and briefly we share her creation, her vision and perhaps her anger at the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation. The language is straightforward, economical, and clever at times. Ultimately, however, I think the apparent simplicity of the poem is deceptive: I certainly couldn’t have written it…

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On living in Thatcher’s Britain

June 28, 2017

Unashamedly political post follows: you have been warned.

I had planned to write on this theme before the recent election; I think it’s just as relevant now. I can’t believe I’m watching the madness they call Brexit, reading about the obscenities of the Grenfell Tower fire and countless other craziness. I have long felt that many of the things that are wrong with our country can be ascribed to Thatcher’s Britain: her evil legacy has infected us for years and will continue to plague for years to come.

Let’s be clear what I mean here: she said that there is no such thing as society. I’m not interested in the semantics of what she actually meant by it, because her attitude and the attitudes of those who latched on to her words and have shaped Britain for the last forty years are self-evident. She unleashed a culture of ‘me first’, of the worst kind of selfishness: I have money and I can do what I want with it, so get out of my way…

There is no sense of duty or responsibility to poorer members of society, to the old, the sick, those without work; in the harshest possible Calvinistic manner, it’s all their fault, and they should do something about it. We thought such attitudes had long gone after the post-war settlement and the advent of the NHS and the Welfare State, but instead Thatcherism has taught two generations to despise what was built then, and done incalculable physical and moral damage to our society (yes, society!).

It seems plain to me that if we are expected to feel any sense of loyalty to our state or our country (however you want to look at it) then it should give one the feeling of having something to feel loyalty towards. If the state wants the loyalty of its citizens, then it has a duty to ensure that everyone has access to affordable housing and healthcare, fuel, water, education and modern communications, to enable them to feel secure first… such things as these, which everyone needs, should not be provided by those who put the profit motive before everything else. If the state makes a loss providing these, then taxpayers will pay more to make up the shortfall; if the state makes a profit then we all benefit from lower taxes.

Our national infrastructure is gradually falling to bits; large parts of it have been sold to other countries, who subsidise their countries from the profits they make from us… can this possibly make sense?

To me, a child of the Welfare State and proud of it, the above seems obvious. But there are many millions who now don’t understand it. As a nation we have always expected to have things on the cheap – firstly from living off the backs of colonies and empire, then from the supposed benefits of ‘privatisation’. I cannot believe that so many people are thrilled with spending considerable amounts of time and energy trying to find the best ‘deal’ when buying gas, electricity, a train ticket, a phone or internet contract, without ever being sure that they have succeeded… saving a few pounds here and there, perhaps, whilst ensuring that the fat cats get richer and richer from the proceeds. I’ve better things to do with my time, and actually long for the days when the state supplied these utilities, and I paid and got on with my life…

We are told that the 1960s and 1970s were a period of chaos, almost anarchy, when the trade unions wrecked the country. That’s not the country I remember; I remember a more caring and rather more unified society, where the poor and the sick and the unemployed were not vilified for what they could not help and often had not brought on themselves. Now I’m living in a time of chaos and anarchy, with big business and the Conservative (ha, ha, fine choice of word, that one!) party busy doing far more harm than any trade union ever did. I’m grateful that my trade union fought for semi-decent working conditions and a reasonable pension which I can now enjoy, and think that rather more people need to take up that fight again today.

I have been heartened by some of the outcomes of the election and begun to think that perhaps almost enough people are fed up of the meanness, the divisiveness, the greed and the squalor that Thatcherism has brought to this country. We shall see; I’m not holding my breath, but it would be nice to spend my declining years in a rather fairer and happier place than today’s Britain.

My A-Z of Reading: Z is for Zeitgeist

December 28, 2016

Warning: this post is political, and I make no apology for that.

The spirit of our times is selfishness. Thatcher’s Britain – me, me, me; there’s no such thing as society. For two generations now, this mantra has been dinned into everyone; the neoliberal tentacles have spread in every direction so that even to suggest that some things are better done by the state on behalf of everyone in society is to seem to exhibit signs of lunacy, and one is treated as if one is somehow wrong in the head. Writers such as Noam Chomsky or John Pilger, to name but a couple, who challenge such orthodoxy, are regarded as being on the extremes of politics.

The US is the individualist society par excellence, with power and influence far beyond its shores. The individual self-fulfilment preached by the hippy movement of the sixties and seventies was soon co-opted by consumerism, the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction and the balance between individual and collective was lost, to everyone’s cost. Britain suffers perhaps more than any other nation because we have the misfortune to share a similar language with the US, which means that every crackpot idea from that land can reach us virtually instantly, unmediated. Not that we aren’t short of home-grown crackpots, mind…

Where is the literature in all this, you may wonder, as that is supposedly the driving force of my blog? Two novels spring to mind. The first I must go back to soon, as it’s more than thirty years since I last read it: Robert Tressell’s masterpiece from the early twentieth century, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which reduced me to tears when I read it; it makes an irrefutable case for socialism being a fairer way to run society in the interests of the vast majority of people. And then there’s a utopian, science-fiction classic from the 1970s, Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent The Dispossessed, which shows us how an anarchist society might be run, and what it might feel like to be part of one. Life isn’t easy on Anarres, but people feel that what they have is worth working for, struggling for. In different ways, both these writers take us outside the mainstream bubble and show us how things might be very different.

In my younger days, as a student, I mingled with all sorts of political groups on the left, and the communist party analysis then, straight from Marx, was that the class struggle was the paramount struggle, and if that was won, the other issues in society, which did exist, such as racism, sexism, ageism, environmental issues and the like, could then be resolved. Other interest groups, however, chose to prioritise their struggles in their particular areas, dividing the opposition exactly as the hegemony wanted.

In my older years I’m coming to think that Marx was right, and that over the years energies have been diverted from the main problem: look at what has happened in the recent US election, where one might say that the struggles by people of colour, women, environmentalists and others, kept the Democratic Party fragmented and led to its losing, while somehow Trump managed to present himself as the champion of an impoverished and disenfranchised class… and won… There are two classes, however you look at things, and what is vague is where the dividing line between them is drawn, but there are the wealthy few who take money from the many ordinary people, the few who enjoy a far greater share of wealth and property than they have right to or need of, right across the world, and are prepared to use violence of all kinds to keep things as they are.

I suppose that brings me to the second spirit of the times: violence. The world is a much more violent place now than when I was a student: you could feel safe travelling pretty much anywhere. I had friends who hitch-hiked to India, via Afghanistan… now even in the relative safety of Europe there is the risk of a terrorist outrage at any moment. How did we get here? Two things stick out, for me, based on what I’ve seen in my life so far. The first is the failure of the West to contribute to a resolution of the Palestine problem; in fact our attitudes and policies have made the situation much worse, and helped poison the feelings of much of the Middle East towards us. And secondly, we can’t stop interfering in the affairs of other countries. Capitalism needs unfettered access to their raw materials, and again this manufactures conflict. Nor can any country be allowed to offer a working alternative model to capitalism: far too dangerous a precedent for our system. See Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits for further exploration of this idea, or just read up on modern history. Writers have always been political: Shakespeare explored contemporary political issues, as did Jane Austen.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this blog will return to dealing (mainly) with literature, teaching and travel…

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