Garry Bushell goes on the rampage with street radical rhymester Attila The Stockbroker
Sounds, February 27, 1982
Sneers for souvenirs, or, my night of hell at the hands of the poetry establishment. Lured by the promise of an Attila The Stockbroker performance, me and a couple of piss-artist pals bowled down to the Theatre Royal Stratford the other week and found ourselves in an alien world of dirty looks, corduroy trousers and snobby, out-of-touch passion dousers.
Middle-class, middle-aged, once-upon-a-time radicals of the old New Left school were holding court, smug, self-satisfied, and stiflingly self-congratulatory.
The left-wing bourgeoisie are just as anti-working class as the right-wing bourgeoisie except they sile as they look down their noses at you. At conventions like tonight’s they can confirm their own prejudices, convince each other that their emasculated ‘radicalism’ (emasculated ‘cos it seeks to talk to no-one but themselves) has some meaning other than self-justification.
Three times we attempted to enter the hall. Three times we were forced back by the almost physical weight of masturbatory verbiage. But on our fourth sally forth the spectre of Jeff Nuttall, a gross drunken bumbling bum who’d once amazingly written the superb teen/counter culture eye-opener ‘Bomb Culture’, spurred one of our number into direct action. Up on stage jumped the anorexic Butterfield, disguised as Pierre The Poet. He hurled booze over the blubber mountain Nuttall and dedicated spur-of-the-moment nonsense to the spirit of Garry Johnson. Oi! – the invasion.
“Shame!” yelled an offended portion of the crowd. “Stinker!” “Lout!” “Off! Off!”
Butterfield had never looked so happy . . . That was the prole V-sign to the whole farcical event, the metaphorical boot through the TV screen, it took Attila to go one step further and provide an alternative.
Compared to his hapless colleagues, the man is a giant. Lively where they are laid back, relevant where they are rambling, down-to-earth while they’ve got their heads in the clouds, socialist while they, despite their rhetoric, are thoroughly CONSERVATIVE.
There he stood in leather jacket, football scarf and DM’s spouting forth about the here and now. Commuters, politicians, popstars, company executives – no-one was spared from his razor sharp word-whippings. not even High Court Judges.
A new poem ‘Contributory Negligence’ concerns a young yob hitching home from an Upstarts gig who gets picked up by one such jaded judicial monstrosity. Outraged by his elitist manner, the youth ends up bashing the bugger and doing a runner content in the knowledge that should he ever get picked up he’d have the perfect defence.
‘He asked for it! He’s rich and snobbish / Right-wing, racist, sexist too / Fat and ugly, sick and slobbish / Should be locked in London Zoo / He wanted me to beat him up / It was an open invitation / Late at night he picked me up / An act of open provocation / High Court Judges are a blight / They should stay home in nice warm beds / And if they must drive late at night / Should never pick up Harlow Reds / A five pence fine is right and proper / And to sum up my defence / It was his fault he came a cropper / CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE!’
Of course if such obstreperous odes were confined to the likes of the Theatre Royal they’d ultimately be as much a waste of time as the Jeff Nuttalls and Heathcote Williams of this world. But Attila’s commitment to the real world sees him at 50 benefits and gigs for every one poetry festival. For example he’s currently compering the ‘Jobs Not YOPs’ Right To Work Campaign march round London. Indeed it was after such a benefit on the back of a lorry in Woolwich that he and his partner in street-radical rhyme Seething Wells first decided to gate-crash the Poetry Olympics at the New Vic ‘for a crack’.
“1977 hit poetry that night,” Attila says over a pint of best in the White Lion a few days later. “Most of the people in contemporary poetry have been doing the same stuff for 20 years. 20 years ago it was valid and real but now they’re just totally irrelevant and self-indulgent. The only one I’ve got any time for is Michael Horovitz, ‘cos he’s the one who gave me and Swells a chance and he’s still into taking risks and doing things.
“But John Cooper Clarke made them redundant in ’77. He showed that poetry should be for the people and that it could be put across by anyone. I wanna make the audience part of it. I wanna write poetry for kids who go to Upstarts gigs and football.
“But I don’t see myself as part of any great movement. I’m not the new Oi! – The Poet, I just wanna be me. Although I support the positive side of Oi! there are things about it I don’t agree with, for example it seems almost exclusively male to the extent of seeming to leave out half the human race. But at the same time I agree with the Oi! message about kids forming their own bands and having a go, creating something for themselves.
“Basically that’s just the real punk message, it’s what inspired me to form my first band, Brighton Riot Squad, in ’77. It was the same then, all of a sudden kids had something to do, then it all went downhill with men in long raincoats with their self-indulgent prattling, or poseurs who just want to dance and forget. Oi!’s brought music back down to earth and the places it means most are the soulless new towns like Harlow where I live where there really is nothing for kids to do at all. Even our one venue, Square One, is being threatened with closure by the Tories of Essex County Council.
“What annoys me about the Left is they just can’t relate to those kids either. The Trot teachers who dominate the British Left think anyone who’s a skinhead or wears leather jackets and boots is in the NF. They’re just as bad as The Sun, which tries to say all skins are Nazis, or all punks gob and like the Exploited. They ignore the thousands of punks who think for themselves and the literally thousands of skins who take part in RAR, ANL and Right To Work.
“The point is, most skins aren’t Nazis, most punks aren’t idiots, and everyone’s got the potential to achieve something. That’s what my socialism’s all about, everyone fulfilling their potential, everyone being able to develop their own skills and having the right to do what they’re good at instead of wasting their talent in a dead end job or a life on the dole. That’s socialism, not some old thug in the Kremlin protecting his empire.”
Now 24, Attila hails from Brighton, the son of a civil servant who died when he was very young but who wrote brilliant poetry that inspired Attila to do the same. He worked hard at school clocking up four ‘A’ levels and a University place. Here he found himself amongst masses of people there ‘cos mummy thought it was ‘right’. The contrast was irreconcilable and he ended up permanently paralytic and fighting the upper crust students he hated.
To some extent Universities, and in particular Polytechnics, work to vacuum off the brightest working class kids and turn them against their background, draw them into a middle class mentality which, whether it calls itself Marxism or Monetarism, is basically anti-working class. When that system fails it produces intelligent rebels like Attila. Or Linton Johnson for that matter.
Attila formed Brighton Riot Squad at college, but it was never a serious venture. Pissed off with bands like the Clash selling out their ideals, he shot off to Brussels where he joined a band called Contingent as a bass player, set up a local RAR, got involved in riotous demonstrations against the mayor who banned gigs after outrageous outbreaks of ganga-smoking at a Peter Tosh show, and generally caused a bit of chaos.
Eventually the band gave him the Big E ‘cos his commitment to (let’s hear it for) “having a laugh” as well as “having a say” sat ill-at-ease with their ultra-serious anarchistic intentions.
So he moved back to soulless Harlow in 1980, and, being a fluent Frog-sprouter, got a job as a linguist-cum-dogs-body at the Stock Exchange.
“I worked there for a year,” he says, “and that place made me sure I was going to be a socialist for life. The people at the top were hideous. Their only interest was how much money they were going to make in the next day’s trading. They thought of nothing else. It made me sick. And of course I didn’t try to conceal my politics so before long they gave me the nickname of Attila The Hun, and my stage name comes from there.”
From there he went on to ‘gig-crash’, jumping on stage uninvited before bands with an electric mandolin and having a go, invariably half-cut. It was from these beery beginnings that the bolshy balladeer of today emerged, this naturally speedy prole-poem purveyor who dominates the stage with his easy confidence and humour, drawing the bulk of his poetry from his early work experience.
Like ‘Gentlemen Of The Wrist’, a Brighton and Hove Albion away mob saying for, um, dubious people, now transferred into lurid lines about stockbrokers better recognised as ‘The sweaty beer-gutted pinstriped pinheaded posers who gather in wine bars after office hours and whinge about things they don’t understand’.
Ditto the truly titillating ‘Death In Bromley’, “about the very small difference between dead commuters and live ones”. Both remind me of a less surrealistic John Cooper Clarke.
“yeah, but they’re the only ones in my set that are like him,” Attila retorts, a little hurt. “It annoys me when people compare me to JCC, it’s like saying anyone with a guitar, bass and drums is like the Beatles. The only real comparison is we’re both making poetry relevant, a valid entertainment for kids.
“I like Linton Kwesi Johnson a lot too, though I’m against the Black Separatist thing. I understand it, but it’s divisive. We should all stick together against the Tories.”
One of his funniest anti-Tory moments is his bawdy ballad ‘Willie Whitelaw’s Willie’, which needs the back-up of at least ten Harlow herberts to make it effective and partly goes ‘Maggie’s so upset/Cos what she wants she just can’t get/She’s taken him home and the lights are low/Military marches on the radio/But there’s one little gland that stops the show/Willie Whitelaw’s willie/It’s small and shrivelled and it looks so silly’.
Amazingly, though probably not so amazingly if you think about it, this has copped him flack from some feminists, but then some feminists are so sour-pussed and middle class puritan they probably wouldn’t appreciate the sort of yobs Attila gets in his audience anyway. He doesn’t seem too upset about it . . .
“I’m really optimistic about everything,” he bubbles. “There’s the Upstarts who are my favourite band at the moment cos they’re relevant and constructive and they’ve got ideas. I know you won’t agree, but I like Dexys and Jacques Brel as well, though Crisis were the finest band ever.
“The Business Anti-Disco Campaign is a good idea. I’d love to do some anti-disco gigs with them ‘cos I hate discos, and especially disco-students who are the most dreaded wing of disco. I did a gig in front of disco students once and they were heckling ‘cos I wasn’t disco. They didn’t want to think or have a laugh. In the end there was this battle between about 700 of them and about 500 Welsh Right To Work marchers.
“But it’s the poetry scene that’s most exciting with people coming up like S. Wells, this really good 18 year old harlow poet called Little Dave, Little Brother from Bradford and Beverley Skyer, who’s 17 from Lewisham and writes like LKJ. And of course there’s Red Ruth from Harlow who plays flute to my mandolin, she’s Harlow’s answer to Dexys.
“Garry Johnson’s good as well, but he hasn’t done a gig for about a million years! There’s a hell of a lot of kids writing poetry and I’d like to get them all doing something. That’s what it’s about for me. If we’re opening up verse for kids we wanna take a whole lot with us. We want to crash through the gates of the Poetry Establishment with a pen in one hand and an axe in the other.”
Attila has recorded an EP with Seething Wells, released soon on the Radical Wallpaper lable. Melvin Bragg won’t play it on the South Bank Show, Bernard Levin won’t be raving about it in The Times, but in front rooms and bedsits all over the country the smouldering embers of a working class poetry explosion will be well and truly fanned.