I’ve enjoyed reading Stand Up and Spit and what a voyage of discovery and re-discovery it’s been; a lucky dip into a veritable jamboree bag of happy reminders of half-remembered happenings, faces and places from my youth, and not least of all finding the odd slice of my own life in there, with mentions of the skinhead fanzine ‘Hard as Nails’, ‘The Provisional Southend Poetry Group’ and the wider wonders of ranting poetry in general – although nothing makes you feel your age quite like discovering that bits of your past have been officially designated as ‘heritage’!
If you’d asked me back in the ‘80s, I’d have said there was nothing remotely cultural or heritage about it all, and I’m not entirely sure that I’d have even described my rather slim notebook of shouting rhymes as poetry at all. Poetry was something you’d done at school because you had to, and enjoying any part of it wasn’t something you readily admitted at my Essex comprehensive at the fag-end of the ‘70s, unless you fancied being treated with the same scorn as the lads in ‘Scum’ might have shown to any ponce, nonce, grass, or other similarly contemptible life form. Nobody really had a sensitive, whimsical side back then. That said, the dramatic prose of Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ had managed to fire my schoolboy imagination, as had the punchy rhythm of ‘A Row in The Town’, a rebel song enthusiastically recited to us by a hard-left corduroy-clad English teacher, oh so typical of the time. Other early influences were really pretty diverse, and ranged from a book of Bob Dylan lyrics I’d purloined from my sister, the nonsense verse of Spike Milligan (one brilliantly signed off “by a young dog, age 3”)’, to the wonderful whiskey and Woodbines matured tones of Richard Burton reading ‘Under Milk Wood’ or the epilogue from ‘Zulu’ (well, with that voice, old Dickie could’ve read the back of a cornflakes packet and made it sound magnificent!).
My own ranting ‘recitals’ that were to come along a few years later, delivered in purest , nasal-whining Estuary English, were never going to have the gravitas of Burton reading Thomas, and so it was the lyrics of Strummer and Weller, the spoken words of John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and the more boisterous talents of the emerging ranting scene, that showed me how poetry could have a life and a relevance outside academia, out in the real world, irrespective of accent or background.
The Provisional Southend Poetry Group came from an accidental, occasional, and not entirely serious collaboration between me and Paul Barrett back in the early 80s. Paul had previously been the voice of local red/anarcho-heavyweights The Sinyx, and I’d been doing a bit of stand-up poetry, jumping up before or between bands – a bit like those birds, Egyptian Plovers I think, who nip in and out between crocodiles’ teeth – variously under my own name or as ‘Skinner Malive’, ‘Ian of Nazareth’, or just ‘that bloody poetry bloke again’.
Paul and I were producing the skinhead fanzine ‘Hard As Nails’ around the same time, so cultural historians looking for tidy linear connections might be tempted to see the move from the written pages of ‘HaN’ to our spoken word performances with the ‘SPG’ as the next logical step in some kind of multi-media youth culture project, but it would only be so much transparently self-mythologizing, revisionist old bollocks if I even tried to pretend that was the case!
In reality, it was more in the spirit of what a certain Garry – Bushell or Johnson, I can’t remember which – once expressed as “having a laugh and a say” that we created ‘The Southend Poetry Group’. We thought a double act might be a bit more entertaining (to stretch the term to its limit) if we mixed up the tone and tempo, taking turns on the mic’, bouncing the poems off each other. Well, two shouty, sweary skinheads combining literary and Situationist pretentions with frustrated toasting deejay aspirations has got to be twice as good, hasn’t it? Or just twice as bad.
Even the name is so of its era, being an obvious and easy play on ‘SPG’, the police heavy mob of the day, but we were obliged to add the “provisional” prefix after the more serious and literary-minded “real” Southend Poetry Group complained to the local press about our misappropriation of their good name. I never realized that poetry was so popular at the time, and that a cultural backwater like Southend in the early ‘80s could have sustained both a “real” and a “provisional” poetry group (I‘d like to think there might have been a “continuity” Southend Poetry Group as well, operating in the shadows, still scribbling cheeky agit-prop limericks and scrawling badly-drawn knobs on pub toilet walls, long after everyone else had moved on….)
But why did we do it? What was the appeal of ranting? For me, it was born from a negative and a positive… The negative was the irrefutable fact that I could neither sing nor keep time, so no bugger would have me in their band. I’d been involved in something called ‘Angry Women’ around 1980, and then briefly tried again with Andy Brown (Allegiance to No-One) and Steve Pegrum (Bleeding Piles/Kronstadt Uprising) with the abortive ‘Tower of Babel’, which was the baby of an earnest but likeable bloke called Steve Dobson, who I think envisaged something more arty and post-punk like the Virgin Prunes, but it just ended up with me doing a load of off-key ‘Rejects and 4-Skins covers, and shouting my way through my poetry set. I remember us going through so many drum-driven versions of my rant, ‘Campaign with No Direction’, that the interminably repetitious output of the most self-indulgent, 12” re-mix-obsessive Balearic club DJ would look positively parsimonious in comparison (So, I’m sorry for messing about, Steve – even if it is thirty-odd years too late!).
But on the positive side – the fun side – of doing stand-up poetry was the urgency and immediacy of it all, and its sheer disposability. I certainly wouldn’t have thought I’d be writing about it three decades later. I didn’t really even think of it as gigging at the time, and I certainly never got paid anything beyond beer or a free entry with one or other of the bands I was notionally ‘supporting’ (“but it’s not about the money, is it Gal; it’s the charge, it’s the bolt…”) and in that respect it was a natural part of the whole cut’n’paste DIY ethic of the time, when everyone seemed to be in a band, writing a fanzine, or doing some thing. Despite taking weeks of typing, fiddling about with scissors, Pritstick, Tippex and Letraset, the fanzines of the time all shared an urgency, an anger, a passion, and a sense of community and genuinely common experience that no soulless 21st century Tweet could possibly hope to match.
Of course it wasn’t really better back then, was it? We were just younger! Although the ‘80s are now presented as a champagne and coke-fuelled loadsamoney free-for-all of power suits and Porsches, it was just a dull run-on from the beige ‘70s for most of us, that saw the transition from school to work, where every drunken two-fingered mug to camera was recorded on grainy Kodak 110 stock to a soundtrack of hissing, muffled C60 cassettes. I remember going into Town for gigs – and going to work in Hatton Garden – in and out of Liverpool Street station, when it was a dingy toilet of a place that actually felt more like the 1950s, perpetually brown and grey, always dark and dank, smelling of soggy mailbags, stale piss, and diesel from the black cabs. It was a microcosm of the country at the time -not a nice place to be – and I can remember many a night waiting for the milk-train back out to Essex, with not a Costa Coffee or Prêt a Manger in sight!
Things were certainly more black and white back then; heady times, where the political energy swirling around the GLC , the Falklands, the miners’ strike, the anti-racism movement, and a genuine fear of imminent nuclear oblivion played out against a brilliant musical score, and an entertainment backdrop of The Comic Strip and The Young Ones. Period film favourite ‘The Long Good Friday’ was shot in a still undeveloped Docklands where an Olympic stadium in the East End was just a fictitious gangster’s grandiose daydream. Few of us could have appreciated just how much the physical and political landscape was changing around us, and no-one could have possibly foreseen the sorry spectacle of today’s London where a bunch of hip and happenin’ bearded twats would be flogging each other breakfast cereal at a fiver a pop, while ordinary working folk are back in a Dickensian world of tradesman’s entrances and segregated housing. We had Ken, and now they’ve got Boris! Some progress, eh?
But getting back to the ranting… it was a fairly short period of time spent on the edge of a fairly small but dynamic, sharp and surprisingly varied scene (there are actually a lot more ways to inform an audience of your level of inebriation and your hatred of ‘Faaatcha’ than you’d think), and there was the undeniable buzz of putting yourself up on stage with just your own words to play with, bolstered by a belly full of Directors, and an occasionally witty riposte and/or a thick skin to see you through. Being heckled – from the simplistic, “Oi! Joe 90!” or “Fuck off, peanut!” to the more imaginative, “See your band’s not turned up again. They must think you’re a right c*** as well!!!” – was always a challenge, but the payback for this (generally) good-natured abuse was getting collared in pubs by drunken strangers shouting my own words back at me, or being put on the spot with ad-hoc requests to recite ”that one about” shopping bags, CND, Paul Weller and Jesus, or Margaret Thatcher (well, this was the ‘80s; I’m sure we ALL had one about Thatcher!)
And here we thirty years on. Thatcher’s dead and gone, along with the ‘eighties and our youth, but we’re still here – older if not wiser – and each of us continuing to stand up and spit in our own little way!
They were good times, and it’s great to see so much on the blog…. The past, as they say, is another country, and there’s no going back -which is just as well as I’d probably be on some bugger’s “no fly list” for all my youthful crimes against literature, art and culture! Oi! Oi! Carry on ranting!!!