Monthly Archives: June 2018

News For Babylon

An anthology of Caribbean British poetry reviewed in Poetry Review, Volume 74, Number 2, from 1984. There is some language in the review that wouldn’t be used today.

News For Babylon: The Chatto Book of Westindian-British Poetry,
edited by James Berry, Chatto, £4.95

‘Educated’ writers whose native speech is a dialect of English rather than the standard variety (itself, ironically, once a regional dialect) are likely to find themselves suspended precariously between two languages, the one vividly experiential, the other conceptually elaborate. Both, to adopt Theodor Adorno’s comment about high and mass culture, ‘are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up’. Exactly how they don’t add up is one of the fascinations of this rich collection. From the calculated burring of William Barnes to the carefully dropped aitches of Rudyard Kipling, mainstream English poetry has dipped condescendingly into dialect from time to time, but such linguistic slumming has usually been firmly distinguished from its more ‘proper’ achievements. Only with a Hardy or a Lawrence does one hear dialect as a kind of resonance of strangeness within formally ‘standard’ speech, inscribed within it as overtone rather than oddity. Contemporary Westindian-British poetry, by contrast, seems to slip unselfconsciously from Creole to standard English between or within poems, creating a dialogue or polyphony of discourses in which the unequal encounter of two cultures is directly enacted.
Grace Nichols’s fine long poem ‘I Is a Long Memoried Woman’, which takes women’s oppression as symbolic of a whole history of Caribbean slavery, starts off in the Creole of its title –

From dih pout
Of mih mouth
from dih
calm of mih
you can tell

I is a long memoried woman

– but veers within a page or so into the imagistic notations of a more recognisable English:

an arc
of black moon

I squat over
dry plantain leaves

and command the earth
to receive you

in my name
in my blood

to receive you
my curled bean

my tainted
perfect child.

Linton Kwesi Johnson pushes Nichols’s Creole to a flamboyantly ‘outrageous’ extreme, spontaneously reinverting the graphic appearance of the later Joyce:

it woz in April nineteen eighty-wan
doun inna di ghetto of brixtan
dat di babylan dem cause such a frickshan
an it bring about a great insohreckshan
an it spread all ovah di naeshan
it woz a truly an hisarical okayjan.

The self-parodic feel of this hints at a certain calculation: what Jim Rand defiantly calls ‘nigger talk’ is a conscious political act, an oppositional mode of linguistic identity rather than some nostalgic regression to roots:

Ya dig de funky way to talk
Talk talk?
Dis na white talk:
Na white talk dis.
It is coon, nignog samba wog talk;
Sweetsweet talk.
Na pussyfooting talk dis.

Rudolph Kizerman, sardonically mourning a compatriot hopelessly lost to the high-falutin white intelligentsia, ends on a satirically compassionate note:

Let the brother be;
the cat’s just trying
to find his way
back to the tribe
on a new
word train.

Most poetry of exile and oppression is likely to evince the same, sometimes contradictory spiritual conditions.

Poem From A Dungeon

1938 and imprisoned during Stalin’s purges Evgenia S. Ginzburg is in a punishment cell for the second time.

Bare feet on the icy stone I stand.
Condemned under the Holy Inquisition’s rule,
Accused of communing with the devil,
Of opposing the Party line.
In this refurbished cell
The centuries close up.
Next door, perhaps,
Lies a strangled princess?
Perhaps, tomorrow, Eulenspiegel’s torturer
Will peer through the door
And thrust a mug of rusty water into my hand,
Or Borgia offer a glass of poisoned wine.
Far easier to believe such things
Than to concieve that, outside the prison’s walls,
Men call each other ‘Comrade’.
Mist floats across the stars
And drowsy summer smells drift over sleeping streams.

Ellen Johnston

Ellen Johnston was born in 1835, and died around 1874. Her writing and persona embodied the notion of “the factory girl” of Nineteenth Century Scotland. She was born around 1835 and died in 1874, and worked for much of her life in factories before being blacklisted.
She had a tough working class background but became known as a poet in her lifetime.

The Working Man

The spring is come at last, cheer up, you sons of toil,
Let the seeds of independence be sown in labour’s toil,
And tho’ the nipping blast of care should blight your wee bit crop,
Oh dinna let your spirits sink, cling closer aye to hope.

If youth and health be on your side, you ha’e a richer boon
Than him that’s dressed in royal robes and wears a diamond crown;
Nae widow’s curse lies in your cup, you bear nae orphan’s blame;
Nae guilty conscience haunts your dreams wi’ visions of the slain –

Tho’ light your purse, and worn your coat the darkest hour of night,
It whiles the very ane that is before it dawns daylight;
And tho’ your lot looks unco hard, your future prospects drear,
Hope’s sun may burst through sorrow’s cloud, your sinking soul to cheer

The summer’s drawing near, cheer up ye sons of toil,
Let the sun of independence aye greet ye wi’ a smile;
His genial beams will light your heart when it is mirk wi’ care,
When ye ha’e little for to spend, and far less for to spare.

Let him that ne’er kent labour’s yoke but come to Glasgow toon,
And let him take a cannie walk her bonny buildings roon,
And let him wi’ his lady hands, his cheeks sae pale and wan,
Stand face to face, without a blush, before the Working Man.

But the man who wins fair fortune wi’ labour’s anxious pain,
He is the man who’s justly earned her favour and her fame;
And may he aye keep flourishing wherever he may gang,
And ne’re forget the days that gane when but a Working Man.

The harvest soon will be, my freens, cheer up, you sons of toil,
And the fu’some hand of plenty will store your domicile;
Ye are the sons of nature’s art, aye forming some new plan,
Oh what would bonny Scotland do without the Working Man?

Ellen Johnston

Heavy Manners

After years of bloody political violence Jamaica takes a step towards peace. The NME‘s top reggae writer Penny Reel writes up the event for the paper 11 March, 1978.
When reggae songs talk about tribal war they’re referring to the rivalry between the JLP and the PNP. It’s the violence that runs through Marlon James’ book A Brief History of Seven Killings.
In an unrelated article there’s an amusing picture of punks and their mums.


From Sounds, 10 November, 1979.

Two new grass roots rock films are being made by a bunch of Paddington teenagers who claim to be very appealing – very appealing for money that is, or they won’t be able to finish the project.
The first is a 25 minute documentary called Knuckles which is about gig violence and bouncers, including film of Stiff Little Fingers‘ riotous Brixton carnival appearance and interviews with Jake Burns, the UK Subs and the Cockney Rejects.
But even more ambitious is a 90 minute film on “alternative music and commercialism”, which they describe as a collage of interviews, live performances and “general messing about”. This one features more of the Stiffs, the Subs, Rejects and Purple Hearts, Barracudas, Johnny G, Baby Patrol, Charles Shaar-Murray (boo!) and Garry Bushell (ray!) – at least.
Forum Youth Films, as they call themselves, won’t get it done though without an infusion of ackers to the tune of £1,300 (they’ll hum it, you pick it up). These ten people have so far put in £700 out of money they’ve earned in their day jobs as shop assistants, waitresses, part-time actors and school students.
You might calculate that the record companies whose bands will be featured would have to ante up about £200 each to supply all Forum’s needs, which might not break the bank of such as Chrysalis, EMI and Beggars Banquet even in these dire times.
If you’d like further details contact Dom Shaw, 12 All Souls Avenue, NW10 (965 9368) or ‘Tubby’ Hasan Shah, 153 Burnham Towers, Adelaide Road, NW3 (722 2419).

Health Fanatic

The excruciating Paula Yates had a gossip column called ‘The Natural Blonde’ in the Record Mirror running from 1979. The lad John Cooper Clarke gets a mention in February 9, 1980.

Lapsed catholic John Cooper Clarke is another boy who’s injured himself this week (all these bum lifts and hernias, where’s all the drugs and sin?) John broke his ankle while he was getting off a train being rather myopic and misjudged the distance and clambered into mid air. His mind was obviously on a higher, nobler plane than the other commuters.

Cheryl B

This poem is from the much missed Cheryl B’s first chapbook, Pubic Enemy #1, that came out on her own By the seat of your pants press in 1994.

Sunday Afternoon On A Highway In New Jersey

It’s really sad when you can’t get laid and you’re a girl – I said to my friends on the way to the abortion clinic.

They didn’t hear me though, they were voguing in the backseat.

– Turn it up Cheryl baby – said the one who was pregnant.
Trucking down the highway, radio full blast
young, wild, crazy.

One of them was spraying Electric Youth perfume.

The condoms in my purse were fermenting, they say they last about five years – but I don’t believe it.

– Sometimes I feel like it’s just not worth it anymore – I added.

The other was holding a monster can of hairspray.

I was surrounded.

– I’m glad school’s finally over –
said the Electric girl, who was two weeks late, but not yet worried.

I grip the steering wheel harder. With my right hand I reach into my purse and grab my lighter, play with it a bit, adjust the flame.

– You know when a bunch of guys get together, they’re like going out for a pizza. We’re going to the abortion clinic – said one of them.

Her hair was not moving with the wind.

Cheryl B