Two of our poets have had their work praised by The Forward Poetry Prize, who selected “Badger The Cadger” from Peter Knaggs’ “You’re So Vain (you probably think this book is about you) and “The Atlas” from Andy Fletcher’s “How To Be A Bomb” as being “Highly Commended”. The two poems will feature in Forward’s Book Of Poetry 2017.
Her Majesty’s Prison
The librarian is the first to notice him. To suspect that something is amiss. He looks out of place, somehow, in a way that she cannot immediately identify. Not his face. An ordinary enough face; dark chin length hair, sun-starved pallor, five-day growth of beard. A face you’d find in any prison or public institution. His clothes, perhaps; plain and anonymous enough on the outside, but incongruous here; black overcoat and dark trousers, worn and shabby looking, but an expensive cut. Not the usual jeans or logoed-up tracksuit of the enhanced or the standard grey sweatshirt/green polyester trouser combo issued on induction. And shoes, proper shoes, not trainers. Staff, she thinks at first, a recently arrived tutor she hasn’t been introduced to yet, or a visiting civilian perhaps. But something about him is vaguely troubling. His bearing. Not for him the sullen head down subservience of the newly arrived, or the slumped blank eyed stare of the hardened. He sits bolt upright in the corner near the computers, set apart from the rest of the men, surveys their babble with a tightly wound unease, a contempt bordering on fury, almost. Tight knuckled fists gripping the arms of the chair. Heels hammering the carpet beneath the table.
A voice raised in complaint at the desk, some angry squabble over an unreturned DVD. The librarian turns her attention away from the man in the corner and deals with the complaint, sends the aggrieved offender away with a list of available titles and his local paper. She returns to her desk behind the panels of glass and wood that serve as her office, but no sooner has she sat down then another offender is at the door, bugging her to chase up a certificate from a previous prison, his fifth identical query in the last two days. Another offender wants to know about Story Book Dads, is his CD ready yet Miss, the Gruffalo at Christmas, Miss, and if not why not? The first of the day’s minor dramas.
The day’s major drama starts with a phone call; Control asking for a headcount. The librarian reads him the number from her tally and replaces the receiver, returns to her typing.
Ten minutes later the phone rings again. The request is repeated and this time she stands and counts the bodies through the glass; relays the information, pauses, listens, nods.
Yes, she says, yes, that includes Orderlies.
Five minutes later the phone rings again and the request is repeated and then again, two minutes later, with an added instruction. She puts down the phone and signals to the assistant.
Stand-fast, she tells her. Don’t let anyone out.
A group of men at the door holding gym bags and beakers overhear, raise an immediate chorus of complaint.
Aw, what, for fucks sake …
Again? What’s up Miss, can’t they count?
Beyond a fucking joke, this …
Gonna miss me fucking session …
The head librarian looks at her assistant.
One extra, apparently …
Jangle of keys from the other side of the door and the men are forced to jostle back and stand aside to admit the two officers. They lock the door behind them and advance into the centre of the room. The younger officer carries a clipboard with a list and mouths one, two, three, four, as his eyes scan the men sat around the tables or stood at the bookcases. Radios in his count and looks at the librarian.
What wing are these?
B, she tells him.
All of them?
He scrutinizes his list, frowns, looks around the room again. Moves among the milling group of men, glancing from the names to each face.
Keep still please lads.
Fucks sake, guv … I’m missing Cash In The Attic …
Stay still …
The officer spots the man sat at the corner table near the computers. Walks across, looks at his list.
Name and number please mate …
The man glowers up at him.
Not got one, he says.
The officer keeps his eyes on his list, pen tap-tap-tapping.
Don’t be clever, he says, I’m not in the mood. Number.
I’m a man, not a number.
Sigh from above. Pen slotted into top pocket.
Stand up, says the officer.
Titters from around the room. The men have stopped moving and fallen quiet. All eyes clamped on the corner.
The older officer takes a step forward.
The younger officer tucks the clipboard under his arm.
On your feet, he says. Now.
The man’s eyes widen. A thin, mirthless smile.
Make me, he says.
In prison, it is often said that time seems to stand still. This is such an occasion. Minute but perceptible shift in the atmosphere, a slight tensing and murmur, bodies braced. The man issues his challenge and time stands still.
The younger officer has been in the job for three months. The older officer is six months away from retirement. The librarian has being doing this for twenty years. She has already made her way over to the wall, to the green panic button. She hears the words from the corner of the room.
I said make me. You deaf as well as fucking stupid?
Five seconds later the morning explodes in clamouring bells, a stampede of boots and a riot of raised voices.
“I can make it longer if you like the style, I can change it round and I wanna be a paperback writer …”
Macca may have been having a sly dig at his song writing partner for having literary leanings, but John Lennon wasn’t the only rock n roller to recognise the powerful connection between pen and guitar. As well as being a public mocking of Lennon’s pretensions, Paperback Writer was perhaps also a grudging acknowledgement of his pioneering achievement. Lennon’s two books “Spaniard In The Works” and “In His Own Write” were not just the indulgences of a bored rock star. Both are absorbing collections of Joycean gobbledygook and Goonish surrealism and were made accessible to a new generation of readers by virtue of the rock superstar status of their author. This in itself was another of The Beatles small but important acts of revolution. Because although it may be a curious notion from today’s perspective, where top 40 CD’s and Nick Hornby novels sit happily side by side on the shelves of HMV, back in the day they occupied very opposite ends of the social spectrum.
Back in the late fifties and early sixties, literature was supposed to be highbrow, intellectual, of the academy. Rock n roll’s triumph was to be the untutored scream from the street, the brazenly low-brow yelp that articulated a feeling wrenched up from the gut or groin. DH Lawrence never wrote a book called Tooty Frooty and Buddy Holly would never release a single called The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. Different worlds, different languages.
Rock and roll and literature first came together in the public consciousness with Jack Kerouac’s beat generation epic “On The Road”. Although the book had been first drafted in the early fifties and took as it’s narrative time frame the be-bop jazz of the immediate post war years of the late forties, it’s publication in 1957 perfectly coincided with the massive impact of Elvis Presley and the emerging teenage pop culture in Britain and the USA. As far as the mass public was concerned, “On The Road”, with its fast cars, wild music and tales of juvenile delinquency was the very first rock n’ roll novel. Kerouac’s love of jazz phrasing directly influenced his writing style, crafting epically long stream of consciousness sentences that meandered across the page like the joyful exhalations of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo. This method of writing to the rhythms of the current music of the times was echoed forty years later when Irvine Welsh laid down the brutal lines of Trainspotting to the hard repetitive beats of acid house.
The other writers that made up the loose collective of the Beat Generation – most notably William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg – were to play a huge influence after the first primal beats of rock n roll had echoed from the swamp of a post-Hiroshima America and evolved into the musical counter-culture that reverberated into the sixties, seventies and beyond. Ginsberg’s “Howl” was a massive influence on the young Bob Dylan, who soaked up and spat back out its angry political energy and vivid freewheeling verbosity on his own incendiary early releases. His self-penned album sleeves were writ heavy with the hand of the Beats, all anarchic imagery and amphetamine-fuelled synapse. By 1972 Dylan had took the next logical step and published his own Beat Novel, the largely incomprehensible “Tarantula”. Unfortunately hardly anyone read it, and of those who did only the most determinedly devoted Dylan follower pretended to know what it was about. Thankfully Bob abandoned his literary career and kept his lyrical energy cooped up where it worked best, in three or four minute bursts of melodic bile.
Over in New York City, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground didn’t so much as wear their literary influences on their sleeve as drag them around on a dog collar and lead. They were named after an S&M themed pulp fiction novel and sang songs inspired by the Marquis De Sade and the poet Delmore Schwartz. During his later solo career, Lou Reed made explicit his debt to hard-boiled realist writers such as Hubert Selby Jnr and Raymond Chandler in his tough and tender tales of New York street life.
Later on, Burroughs perfected the “cut-up” – a method of writing that involved slashing an established page of text to pieces and re-assembling it at random in the name of spontaneous juxtaposition. By using the cut-up, the artist absolves himself of any authorial responsibility and restrains his own ego from directing the narrative flow. This was an approach that hugely appealed to David Bowie, who at the time was pretending to be a cold-blooded alien from outer space. The idea of formulating song lyrics from such a dispassionate process fitted right in with his then remote outsider stance. When applied to the actual sonic fabric of music itself, the cut-up theory later found it’s natural correlation in the art of sampling. Much of the early hip-hop and electro music that came out of New York in the late seventies and early eighties was the musical equivalent of a Burroughs collage, plundering bass lines and beats from such disparate sources as ancient soul records, UK bubble gum pop and early seventies Krautrock.
After punk exploded, literature and rock music were locked in a loving embrace, never to be disentangled. Perhaps not surprisingly Irish and Anglo-Irish musicians have always dipped their pens in the deep inky tradition of their country’s lettermen and women, from The Pogues’ early Brendan Behan inspired suits, The Waterboys adaptation of WB Yeats poetry and Morrissey’s early insistence of being photographed with an Oscar Wilde Collection to hand. Other musicians noted for their lyrical prowess such as Nick Cave and Julian Cope have took the next logical step and become credible published authors in their own right. The very best rock music and literature share much common ground – particularly the power to transport the human soul above the mundane. It’s a rich and fertile country. Someone should write a book about it.
(This article also appears on Sabotage Times)