Ye know on earth and all ye need to know’
It is truly easy to find beauty in language. Advertising executives know this better than anyone. They have found out that techniques of allusion, metaphor and veiled suggestion can be used to infiltrate our desire. They have worked out how to join this with musical poetic devices like rhythm, alliteration, assonance and rhyme, to make us remember and repeat what they say. They know that poetry is great for creating associations and linking up different bits of the universe in peoples’ minds. They make poetry that is ‘multi modal’, meshing poetic elements with other mediums collaboratively to create intense desire and emotion within very short spaces of time. Shit. Can anyone truthfully claim they have not been moved and influenced by them?
Is it Art?
Saying one thing is ‘art’ and another is not is always dangerous territory. One of the reasons that most people believe that poetry doesn’t belong to them is because our educational and cultural institutional have traditionally told everyone that the ‘British Canon’ should be studied and (if creative practice ever came into it) emulated. Many of those who are held up as ‘our’ great poets often belong to a different era, class, race, culture and cosmology to modern Britain, with all its shades, tongues and tastes. Most of our most celebrated poets have almost unrecognisable dialects and cultural references to the students I have been teaching in East London this last year in my position as a full time, embedded, Spoken
There is no qualitative difference between the slogans and cartoons that poet Vladimir Mayakovsky banged out for the Bolshevic propaganda effort and modern cereal boxes artwork.
Now in Hackney, trendy cafes can be seen adorned by 1950′s Hollywood posters and 1920′s grocery advertising.
Poetry for poetry’s sake
Poetry for poetry’s sake is a small part of our innate human capacity to use language beautifully, creatively, musically and metaphorically. Poetry (whatever that is) can be playful and throw-away, like Lewis Carol, Roald Dahl or John Hegley, epic like Dante, and esoteric like T.S Elliot. It can be yelled at an audience of thousands of festival munters, or cryptically encoded like a crossword. It can be written on a toilet door, whispered in a moment of post coital improvisation or spray painted onto a bridge. Indeed, there are so many manifestations and features to this art form that few people can agree on what it is. One thing is certain – it doesn’t belong to ‘poets’.
Sometimes poetry sells play play-doh, banana holders and baby wipes. Often it is crap, truly crap. But then, allot of what is written and spoken by people who identify as poets is crap. I say this as someone who spent many years writing and performing crap poetry.
So why is it that artists who “sell out” receive such sustained criticism? I think it is because art cannot be separated from its who, where, when and how. The motivations, the financing and the dissemination of art is intensely political, and for good reason. Ideas are powerful, and every dictatorship and social movement has had its own aesthetic and artistic genre. Even if art does not consider itself “political”, art has agency in the world and can perpetuate and validate social norms and behaviours that can have good or bad consequences. So much art (including poetry) produced in large scale commercial advertising is nefarious for the sake of profit. Much of it is a danger to public and environmental and mental health. We have marketing specialists and sloganist to thanks for the obesity epidemic, arms fairs, public complicity on illegal wars, suicides and eating disorders. Almost none of it fundamentally challenges the the dominant capitalist – materialist paradigm that we have to blame for the
ecological, economic and social collapse humanity is now facing. These moral arguments are valid and are part of the truth that give artists integrity.
Little of what is produced in commercial advertising will be remembered for capturing the human experience in a new way or articulating great moments of history, large or small. That’s fine, it’s not trying to. Its producing a product fit for purpose – and it does so very well. What is more, it will continue to do so as long as we keep buying it.
Firing the Canon
The challenge for us is to switch off from it and find ways to spread ideas worth sharing in creative ways. We have no choice and there is little time. Spoken word artists in this country have been particularly successful in recent years in reigniting imaginations and mobilising hearts and minds – see Kate Tempest, Danny Chivers, Holly McNish to scratch just the skin of it. Poetic communities are spaces where ideas are shared, voices cultivated and critical thinking exercised. None of it involves sitting in front of a TV. In the words of spoken word poet, and modern day orator, David Lee Morgan: ‘Poetry is part of the cultural mix that keeps that the spirit of freedom and the desire to fight against injustice burning in all our hearts’. Now is the time to reclaim our language and revivify it as something insightful, questioning and positively inspiring. That would be truly beautiful.
On Saturday 18th August I saw over a thousand people form a human chain
around a gas fracking site in Balcombe. It was a powerful sight. A large oil drill towered menacingly in the air, circled by a tall razor-wired fence. The razor wire was circled by police officers and elite Ghurkha soldiers from Nepal. The officers were circled by extra fencing. The fencing was circled by chanting, clasped hands, Mexican waves and song. It was a day I will never forget and one that connected me not only with the hopes and fears of thousands of protester, but also with South America, the Indian Sub Continent, the future, the past, the young, the old and the thumb of a Nepalese soldier.
The first time I saw the drilling site I was taken straight back to Colombia. In 2007 I worked in human rights, visiting communities affected by the arrival of British mining multinationals. All the ingredients that we documented in the oil regions of Casanare and Arauca are present in Sussex now: conflict and social division, the militarisation of the countryside, the unequal sharing of short term profits (often appearing as corruption) and the industrialisation of once peaceful communities with lorries, widened roads, bridges, traffic, light and noise. This is before you even count the pollution of air and scant water supplies (millions of gallons of which is used and contaminated by fossil fuel exploration).
The global ‘oil curse’ that has divided societies, decimated ecosystems and destroyed economies has arrived in the rolling wooded hills of Tory heartland. What happened next outside that fence was one of the most remarkable moments of solidarity I have ever witnessed.
At demos you will usually see me dressed as a copper. I do this for a number of reasons:
1/To make people laugh. You’ve got to have fun at a demo, otherwise you will be seen as angry looser and people will not join in.
3/ To poke fun at the coppers. Let’s face it they do lay themselves open to a good ribbing sometimes.
4/ For no other reason than being able to stand at the end of a line of cops with a sign that reads ‘Police say no to fracking’. I once wrote the words ‘Police say no to cuts’ in chalk on the pavement in front of police who responded by laughing. One officer thanked me “because we can’t say that ourselves.” They should have arrested me. Chalking a public highway is classed as ‘criminal damage’.
Outside the perimeter fence, dressed half as gorilla and half as copper and armed only with a megaphone, I informed the uniforms on the other side of the fence that our campaign of gorilla warfare had been cancelled. They were outnumbered, after all, and it would have been unfair. Eighty five percent of local residents oppose fracking and there were shitloads of protesters from as far-an-oil-field asIreland and Scotland. The fact that we follow a tradition of non-violent civil disobedience also made the ‘warfare’ bit tricky. To compound this I wasn’t actually a gorilla.
But some form of conflict had to take place. The Ghurkhas are some of the bravest, best trained, most loyal soldiers in the history of modern warfare. They were far from their home and (as I was told by protesters camped next to the site) resentful that they were being used as private security for this corporation. In Colombia they have a word for militias used by companies and corrupt politicians – paramilitaries.
But these officers were no terrorists. I could see it in their giggling faces. They were agents of the public realm; there to serve and to protect. They (we hope) get
out of bed in the morning wanting to be part of something noble – an organisation working to reduce crime and the fear of crime, to uphold justice and the survival of the democratic values that we so cherish. Isn’t that why we were there?
It was decided that the best way for us to resolve our apparent differences, in a non violent way, was through sport. Thumb war to be precise. It was a risky decision. I didn’t know if thumb war shared the same success of Coca-Cola and the happy birthday song. Could it have permeated the climbs of the Himalayas? The stakes on this reaching a peaceful resolution depended on this going well, butphysical conditions were stacked against our mini-Olympiad. A large fence meant that it had to be either thumb war or pole vaulting. The latter would have presented problems for the officers, who had no access trees since they were chopped down to build the fracking site.
I elicited the help of a demonstrator, to… well demonstrate. A nine year old girl volunteered herself. I could tell she took the discipline of thumb war very seriously and had obviously been training (as well as probably having some sort of genetic predisposition to strong thumbs). She won. But that was only a
demonstration so it didn’t count.
It was time for the big bout. Both sides were now aware of the rules and a large crowd had assembled. Tensions were at fever pitch (one of the police officers was pissing himself). We faced each other, two gladiators separated by a fence, an ideological conflict, an economic apartheid and a multi-billion dollar global security apparatus. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. I nervously extended my hand through the fencing and into enemy territory. If my opponent rejected it a major opportunity for peace would have been lost. I would also look like a massive tit.
I could see the Ghurkha was nervous. He was faced with a big risk and having to draw on all his training as a peacekeeper and a killer simultaneously. He stood alone, disciplinary hearings ringing through his head. He looked at the police officer stationed four meters to his right. He looked at the rest of the world staring in: anarchists in balaclavas, clown army soldiers, a slightly desperate looking police gorilla, one arm hanging through the cage, grandmothers, fathers,
daughters. The seconds ticked bye like a dying heartbeat. Nothing happened. Shit. Then, slowly, the small brown hand of my enemy combatant came timidly to mine. We locked together. One! Two! Three! Four!
The crowd erupted in an outburst of struck oil that shot up from a place deep inside of us. Someone called out “Namaste” (the Nepalese greeting) and he pressed his hands together and made a slight bow. Then one of the most extraordinary things happened. A circle opened up in front of the gate and a discussion started over the fact that we were not the only victims standing in this field. In April of this year the Ghurkhas (who have been dying alongside British soldiers since 1815) threatened to go on hunger strike if they did not receive pensions equal to their British counterparts.* There was genuine anger and gut felt solidarity among the protesters that our brothers on the other side of the fence, who were prepared to die for a Queen and Commonwealth, were being so blatantly denied.
The assembly’s discussion widened. It was mentioned that there are police officers living in emergency BnB’s because of the lack of affordable housing. Most officers can’t afford decent schooling in a privatised education system. Neither can they afford to look after their elderly parents in a landscape of NHS cuts. Gas companies, like Cuadrilla operating in Balcombe, get tax breaks, stripped back regulation and a special office to support them in Whitehall. The rest of us get disability cuts, homelessness, debt, stress and suicide. Our elderly population getsleft battle scarred and impoverished, shivering to death for substandard housing and the rising costs of gas.**
The Ghurkha was genuinely touched by the outburst of solidarity. We, in turn, were touched by the trust he put in us. For a moment there were no uniforms, no razor wire and no fence – just a bunch of people standing next to a giant drill that doesn’t need to be there.
We are all in this sticky puddle of bituminous sludge together. If I was reminded of anything at last weekend it was that I am part of a global movement standing against energy cartels who have a strangle hold over our democracy, our
economies and our climate. I was reminded that chains of people are much stronger than chains of hydrocarbon molecules and much more volatile. We are the most powerful source of energy and our reserve remain largely untapped. Join the growing grass roots resistance against fracking, fossil fuels and corporate greed. The time for action is now. All power to the thumbs.
And as for who won, well, let’s just say it was a draw.http://www.nodashforgas.org.uk/
** Despite the misinformation on gas prices, Cuadrilla themselves have admitted that the impact on shale gas will be “basically insignificant” (p29 The Guardian, Tuesday 20th August, 2013)
This beautifully produced short documentary was made by Matt Hopkins of Progress Films as part of a series of hard hitting short portraits of modern Britain.
At a time of record homelessness, evictions and rent hikes, the Government’s response has been to break the UN Declaration on Human Rights and criminalise people who make a temporary shelter out of long term empty buildings. They now propose to extend the ban to residential buildings forcing the public to pay for the imprisonment of squatters and the enforcement of empty buildings on behalf of a powerful landowning minority who are profiting from ‘land banking’ (buying up properties, keeping them empty and selling them off years later at an inflated price)
This is not just an attack on squatters but boaters, social housing tenants, young people unable to afford homes, sofa surfers, people stuck at their parents; in short – everyone affected by a system that uses housing as a commodity rather than an essential resource for everyone. Now is the time to stand up against the further criminalisation of squatting and protect public space and social centres as well as our rights to carry out student sit ins, workplace occupations, peace and environmental camps, heritage occupations. Here are…
Also, essential listening on the housing crisis from Resonance FM
A sneak preview from the new LP ‘Made Possible by Squatting’ in collaboration with Dead Kousin. Vocals recorded in a squatted recording studio in South London where Depeche Mode used to record. LP out this Summer.
“No homes without people! No people without homes!” [Chant on the streets of Spain]
“Don’t make me look like a prat for not knowing how many properties I’ve got” [David Cameron in an interview, 2009]
I live in disused buildings, part of the 10% of the world’s population that lives on squatted land and, consciously or otherwise, is taking direct action against the deficit in affordable housing and availability of land. As such, I am part of a network of communities that recycle unused food, furniture and space. I live in London – a city haemorrhaging with homelessness, a city where entire families are forced to live in converted utility rooms, where single mums get re-housed from BnBs on a monthly basis, a city with 80,000 buildings, and “twice as many bedrooms as people” (Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield). Very soon, if the Coalition Government has its way, I could be writing this from prison.
Last week the Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt, started writing to MP’s in an attempt to gather evidence to support a further ban on squatting in non residential premises. This law, like the law concerning residential properties, could be rushed through without proper consultation before the summer is over – criminalising tens of thousands of people who have made a temporary shelter out of empty and unused office blocks and industrial warehouses.
No more social centres and cuts cafes. No more activist convergence centres during international summits. No more free parties in cities. No more skill shares, free shops, film nights, banner making workshops. A city in lockdown, where vulnerable people get thrown out of empty buildings and into jails for asserting a human right to shelter. But then where is the profit in human rights? Britain now has the highest prison population in Europe. Since I started secondary school in 1993 the prison population has doubled. Why could this be?
A/ The population has doubled
B/ We have mysteriously doubled our misbehaviour
C/ It has become profitable for politicians and their friends on the boards of directors to incarcerate people into
private prisons (paid for by the public), rather than remedying social deprivation and growing inequality.
Answers on the back of a postcard to PO Box Cameron’s bottom.
I have met the owner of the building that I am writing in now, just as I have with the last two commercial buildings where I have lived.
In all three cases we have explained our situation and reached an amicable agreement to leave on a particular date when planning permission is received or a quote has been given on demolition. The landlord has been free to visit and has been in regular contact. Stories like these are common but don’t get reported. Under the new law the police will have powers to enter regardless of such verbal agreements and arbitrarily evict squatters making them homeless or worse. Queue political persecution.
I once lived in a large premise in Central London that had been left empty for 20 years. When faced with eviction we invited the neighbours around for a consultation over how to save the space for the community after we had left. Over thirty people turned up.
“I’m really glad you are here” said one neighbour. “I have been burgled three times and they have always used this empty space to get over my fence”.
“What a valuable place this could be!” said another, “I have been living here for years and this is the first opportunity I have had to meet any of my neighbours!”
Preceding our eviction a man from the security firm (that covered the building) passed by. I struck up conversation with him and while we were chatting a neighbour passed bye and said how great it was that we were making use of the space. Another neighbour, seeing the uniform, shouted down a message of support from the balcony of his tower block. Seeing this, and hearing our story, the security guard pulled me to one side. He told me he supported what we were doing. “I used to live on the streets”, he said “I hate this job and I’m only doing it so me and the wife can move out of this city… I think it’s disgusting the amount of empties in this city. You should see the amount of buildings we work with. It’s a joke!” He then took my number and offered to give me advanced warning of the eviction date. I thanked him and told him how helpful that was since one of us was bed-bound recovering from a major operation.
Last week I spoke to another security guard outside a squat that we were handing back. He said he had worked in buildings in Central London over ten stories high that were left void. He then told me he considered squatters to be “freedom fighters” [!] Such instances of solidarity are not isolated. In Pamplona, Spain last year locksmith companies publicly declared that they would not take part in any further evictions of families from their homes.
In this country, as in the rest of the world, the security apparatus of private property is made up of low paid (often immigrant and exploited) labour who are worried about meeting their own housing needs. The Police frequently persecute squatter with illegal evictions, turning a blind eye to illegal evictions (carried out by private gangs sent to brutally evict squatters) or by brutally evicting squatters themselves. They are public sector workers on low income. Most don’t have a foot in the property market. The deficit in secure housing is their crisis too. It is also the crisis of elderly women freezing to death in sub standard housing, or dying of stress over rental costs. It is the crisis of the unemployed and young people forced off housing benefits, snared into a life of debt with no hope of owning their own home. It is the crisis on the millions of “hidden homeless” burdening the homes of aging parents or facing the cushions of friends sofas. It is the crisis of the middle classes desperate to find some financial security by buying properties while their pensions are gambled away by banks.
There are over 1 million empty buildings in this country – not paying bedroom tax. Join in solidarity against high rents, evictions, and the bogus crisis of available housing.
First they evicted the gypsies and I did nothing as I was not a gypsy
Then they evicted the squatters, and I did nothing as I was not a squatter.
Then they evicted the single parents, and I did nothing as I was not a single parent
Then they evicted the unemployed, and I did nothing as I was not unemployed
Then they evicted me and there was nobody left to help me.
Write to your MP asking them to sign the early day motion to repeal Section 144 on squatting
Please sign and share the petition to repeal Section 144 http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44597