craic

coffee and tax

Courtesy of the author John Siddique – who posted it on facebook a week or so ago, asking (as I did) what loyalty meant – one year after I wrote it the Caffè Nero letter is up and running again. I had no idea this had happened till someone I knew drew my attention to it, but by then it had already been shared nearly 1000 times. Last time I looked the number of shares was over 10 000, with almost another 2000 on a further post I’d put up, saying how surprised and pleased I was to see it was still making waves.
The posts have attracted lots of positive comments, and support from people who were previously unaware what Caffè Nero were up to – hardly a surprise seeing as they don’t go shouting it from the rooftops – many of whom have said they won’t be drinking there any more. It would be nice to think that independent, tax-paying coffee shops, made successful by the passion and hard work of the people who run them, will see the benefit of this – the option’s there, after all.
In amongst the support, of course, there are comments by some people suggesting I’m wasting my time, or that I don’t know what I’m on about. Tempting though it is to respond to this on each thread where it appears, life’s too short and I’m too lazy. So I thought I’d gather all the objections together here, in one blog, and give my answers.
Ready? Here we go.
Hate the game, not the player. You see, my letter is naive, and doesn’t even pick the right target. Apparently, grumbling into your coffee about the system which allows corporate tax avoidance is ok. Deciding not to use companies which have chosen to avoid tax is not. Unsurprisingly, organisations involved in pushing for tax justice have no problem at all with my letter, because it’s not an either/or. They understand that – to follow the analogy – you can want the game changing and pick which players you support. At the same time. Much as I’d love to think that the people who tell me ‘hate the game’ are fighting for tax justice every waking minute, I suspect they’d actually prefer the issue was ignored.
As for ‘hate’, that’s a little strong. I simply think companies – all companies – should pay into the society they’re part of. What’s the problem?
The letter writer knows nothing about economics. Yeah, right. But the people who choose to ignore the vast sum (estimated to be £4-12billion) which corporate tax avoidance costs us, yet expect roads, bridges, transport infrastructure, a police service, a fire service, ambulance crews, teachers, schools, hospitals, nurses, doctors, pensions, sick pay, tax credits, unemployment benefit, child allowance, driving licences, passports, and the civil servants who adminster them, and expect all of it to appear out of nowhere at the exact moment they need it and who throw a hissy fit if their dustbins aren’t emptied on time, they’ve got economics nailed. Yep. Sounds reasonable.
Tax is bad for business. If you argue that allowing businesses to benefit from all the services listed in the previous response is fine, but asking them to contribute some of their profit as tax revenue to help underpin the society they work in is completely out of the question, you really haven’t got a leg to stand on.
If they paid their tax, they’d probably go bust, and then people would lose their jobs. Ah yes, the ‘probably’ here means ‘I pulled this idea out of the air and haven’t a clue whether it’s true.’ Seeing as other coffee shops who *do* pay their tax make a profit – the clue being that they’re still in business – I’d say it isn’t.
The letter is anti-business. Always good to see this old chestnut being given an airing. What I’m actually in favour of is a level playing field. Why should your local, independent coffee shop pay their tax while bigger companies – with slippery accountants and sharp legal teams – get away with less?
Other companies do the same. Correct. Corporate tax avoidance is a massive problem. In fairness to Caffè Nero it’s worth pointing out that Apple, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, and others do it too. It’s somewhere next to impossible to steer clear of them all, but that doesn’t mean you have to do nothing. There are alternatives to tax-avoiding coffee chains. You can buy books online at hive.co.uk instead of Amazon. There are other search engines than Google. And so on. If you want to throw the charge of hypocrisy at me because I typed this on a Mac, and post videos on YouTube, knock yourself out.
The letter is self-righteous twaddle. Ah, the old favourite. A classic deflection. The person making this comment doesn’t have to address what the letter says because whoever wrote it is an idiot. Well, if you can’t manage to run rings round an idiot – and so far you haven’t – what does that say about you?
As for the personal attacks from keyboard warriors and trolls, I hope you’ll understand that I won’t grant them the dignity of a response. They say way way more about the people making them than they ever could about me.
One more thing, and I’ll sign off. If you believe I’m wrong about all of this, and corporate tax avoidance is perfectly ok, then – in the interests of honesty and transparency – maybe Caffè Nero should put a big sign on their shop doors explaining why they don’t need to pay tax, Amazon add a huge banner to the home page of their website saying the same, and so on. That way customers could decide for themselves whether they wanted to support them. If it’s such a reasonable idea, why hide it away?
I’ll leave you to think about that. Enjoy your day.



this machine

This morning I wake in an old farmhouse in Cumbria with blue skies overhead and jackdaws cawing outside. Today is a day off, a day for striding up into the fells and looking out at the world below, hoping to hear curlew and lapwing, and revelling in the vast, majestic emptiness of the landscape.
After ten dates in fourteen days, it’s just what is needed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved every minute of this tour – it’s reminded me just how much I enjoy being out on the road, taking my poetry to new audiences, meeting new people and hearing their stories – but it’s good to have a chance to recharge my batteries. And to do it in such a beautiful place on such a glorious day.
The tour has been an experiment, an adventure, a leap into the unknown. I’ve always believed that poetry is a conversation, an opportunity to engage with an audience and for them to engage with you. For you to share your take on things, to point their attention towards something – whatever it may be – and say Look at this! and take them with you. That was my conceit. The question was, would it work?
The answer has been yes.
Friends have directed me to bars and cafes which they’ve thought will be suitable venues, sympathetic to the idea of letting a poet they’ve never heard of come in, read his poems, and promise he’ll bring an audience too. They’ve invited their friends. They’ve put me up in spare rooms and on sofa beds. And I’ve had a ball. Venues have turned out to be beautiful, cosy, intimate spaces it’s been a joy to perform in, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me at the end of the night that they didn’t think they liked poetry, that they came along with no real expectations, but they’ve really enjoyed it, and thank you, and come back again sometime and read again.
I was going to say it doesn’t get better than that. But it does. I’ve done this tour on the motorbike, travelling from gig to gig with my books, a couple of changes of clothes and a toothbrush in the panniers, and that really has been the two-wheeled cherry on the cake. To ride north yesterday, buffeted by the wind over Shap, swooping through the landscape, with the scent of new-mown hay around me was a privilege and a joy. I grinned from the instant I fired the bike up to the moment I arrived. This machine moves poets.
I’m an incredibly lucky man. I’ve one more gig tomorrow, and a late-night journey home, where I’ll rest up and catch up on sleep, and then doubtless start plotting more gigs, further opportunities to point the bike somewhere I’ve never been, and see what I find when I get there. If you want me to come to where you live, drop me a line, we’ll sort something out, and I’ll turn up, a poet on his beloved motorbike. Today, though, I’m leaving it standing in the yard, and striding up into those fells. It’s a beautiful, beautiful day.
P.S. To my surprise, while I’ve been on tour, the Caffè Nero letter has gone viral once again, a whole year after I wrote it. I’ll be writing about that in another blog soon. But now it’s time for the fells.



counterpunch

Someone asked me recently why I write poetry, and I realised I didn’t really have an answer.
I was able to tell them that my work has been described as raging, irreverent, and radical, or that I’ve been called one of the most powerful and sincere voices in political poetry, but as to why I write… I didn’t have a clue. It’s not something I’ve ever spent a great deal of time thinking about, it’s just something I do. Which I enjoy. In a world of soundbites and spreadsheets, where we’re increasingly encouraged to have an opinion on everything and know the value of nothing, and where our TV screens are eternally chock-full of politicians and interviewers shouting each other down, I know that my response is simple: I step away from the hubbub and the din, write my poetry, and feel better for doing so.
But writing it is only the start. I also want to find an audience. After all, if a haiku falls in the forest and nobody hears it, who’s to count the syllables? Yes, I do know that’s a mixed metaphor like as not, and no, I don’t often write haiku, but the point stands – unlike the fallen haiku (which you might just have heard, if you’ve been paying attention).
A cynic might say that this desire for an audience is all about ego. I guess it could be. Fairly obviously, given my perspective on this, I’m not best placed to say. But – in honesty – I doubt it. It’s got far more to do with communication, and laughter, and the sharing of ideas. It’s about opening up a space where we can step back and see the world around us brighter and more clearly than before. It’s about the nod of recognition, the relief of problems shared. I suspect – now that I’ve mulled it over and thought about it – that a lot of my poetry is about putting into play a small counterpunch to the dominant narrative, a narrative which tells us drowning migrants aren’t our business, which pressurises women with unattainable ideals of beauty, which demonises the poor and worships at the feet of money.
This month I’m taking this small counterpunch on tour. Thirteen dates in May, some more in June, and a scattering of festivals through the summer. All the details are here. If you know people who live in any of the places I’m visiting, please, let them know. And if I’m gigging near you, come along, have a listen, say Hi. Let’s see if we can put a smile on your face and some joy in your heart.*
*election results notwithstanding

 



lies, damned lies

Sometimes the cut and thrust of politics goes way way beyond what it’s possible to lampoon, and – with an election coming up – it’s more true now than ever.
On Sunday, David Cameron claimed in a TV interview that the increase in numbers using foodbanks is down to the fact that – wait for it – his government have been better at publicising their existence than the previous government. That other lot, you see, were embarrassed about the fact that people were struggling to afford to eat in a country with so many millionaires. But not the tories. That increase in numbers? (41,000 to 913,000 if you wondered, in the sixth richest country in the world) That’s because they care, care more than the other lot, care enough to make sure people know there are foodbanks out there. Now, I’d always been led to believe that one of Shiny Dave’s strengths was that he’d worked in PR, and knew how to spin a story, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. You can take political chutzpah and partisan bare-faced cheek so far, and then they start to look a little, well, a tiny wee bit stark raving bonkers. But maybe this is the opening salvo in the new establishment line, their one-size-fits-all solution to any tricky political realities. The offensive logic behind Shiny Dave’s claim means we can wind up the JFT96 campaign, because the problem isn’t that the South Yorkshire Police let an awful lot of Liverpool fans die at Hillsborough, it’s that other police forces didn’t kill enough of them on their turf, the slackers. (in case anyone gets the wrong end of the stick: yes, that is outrageous – which is completely my point)
In the same calendar week, Iain Duncan Smith (who’s as batshit crazy as Katie Hopkins, but without the soundbites) was also on TV, claiming he was furious with people for criticising what he’d done with welfare reforms. His performance was so wooden it gave Roger Moore hope of a comeback, his fury so unconvincing it made Geoffrey ‘dead sheep’ Howe look like Hannibal Lecter. I know the facts show that under IDS’ leadership of the Department for Work and Pensions seriously ill people have died within days of being found ‘fit for work’, and that 60 people have killed themselves after having their benefits cut, but don’t let those facts mislead you into thinking Smithy doesn’t care. He does. And he’s outraged that anyone could dare to say otherwise. That other lot, you see, they didn’t care enough. They left people dependent on handouts. Iain cares enough to want them dead.
There are few things more unsightly than bullies playing the victim in the hope of distracting attention from their own conduct. And Mr Smith has plenty to distract us from.
This is a man who lied about his qualifications from an Italian university (he never got any), lied about qualifications from a british college (he never got any), who lied about claiming for £39 breakfasts when challenged on BBC Question Time, and who is now lying about his fury. He runs a government department which has been charged (by the National Institute for Social and Economic Research, no less) with ‘making things up’ when it comes to their claims of what they’ve achieved – although that is, of course, the other lot’s fault for not making things up enough when they had the chance.
His department introduced the bedroom tax, but he lives in a house on his father-in-law’s estate (that’s estate as in acres and acres of grounds, not as in ‘broken britain’). Two years ago he claimed he could live on £53 a week – which is what some claimants have to survive on – but hasn’t yet quite found time to do so, even though a petition from half a million people encouraged him to give it a go. If you’re reading this, Smithy, consider it a reminder.
Only thing I can say in Iain’s favour is that all his work at the DWP has kept him from writing another novel. On the other hand, his writing may have been truly awful – even the Telegraph called it terrible terrible terrible – but at least while he held a pen and tried to put words together in a semi-coherent fashion it stopped him from ripping the safety net from under some of the most vulnerable in our society.
All of which is to say that if you’re not furious about what’s happening, you’re not paying attention. Get furious. We’ve an election coming up. Make sure you vote. It might – might – just make a difference. Let’s put Iain out of a job.



home is where the heart is

The town where I grew up is never going to win any beauty contests. It’s not chocolate-box cute, and the landscape is nothing to write home about. It’s the sort of place where – if you were driving through on your way from one beautiful place to another – you wouldn’t see any particular need to linger. You’d see a sprawl of warehouses and factories on the featureless plateau just past Birmingham, a web of industrial estates and motorways, and roads which are a patchwork of repairs, and you’d probably put your foot down and keep going.
Growing up there taught me to find beauty in unexpected places, to revel in plants growing out of the walls of ageing factories, frost sparkling on rusting cars in a scrapyard. It showed me the glory of a sunset seen through the lattice of pylons, and the wonder of the bustle of a town on market day when its people have money in their pockets. Because when I was a kid, my town was thriving. I went to sleep to the sound of freight trains running through the night, and I woke to the smell of metal being heated and stamped and pressed, to the dull thump of drop forges and the whine of lathes.
Then Thatcher happened – I went away to university, came back nine months later, and it seemed as though the whole town had fallen silent. When I hitched a lift out, back up north to Leeds, the businessman from Essex in a bright red Merc who’d picked me up told me that the unemployed were simply bone-idle. Tebbit was right. They should just get on their bikes and go and find work. Unemployment in my hometown had just shot up to 21%. How would he like it if they all turned up on his doorstep, I asked. He didn’t have an answer. His sort never do.
Historically, my hometown had moved to the heartbeat of heavy industry, sung a song rich with the music of creation, invention, and graft. Overnight that was taken away, and the words which replaced it were part of a language of loss: decline, high unemployment, economic deprivation. But those words tell only a part of the story of my town – there’s always been beauty and hope there too.
I still go back there, even now. Every few weeks I catch the train – then a bus, then another – to see my dad, and to catch up with my oldest friends. The town is the same as ever, and yet every time I’m there it’s changed. There are more street drinkers. There are apostolic churches and charity shops, houses where they knocked the factories down. There’s less money than there used to be. The air is cleaner than it was when I was a kid, and when I walk the dog we go along what was once a railway line and through a nature reserve which was spoil heaps from the mines when my dad was a boy. I sit with him and ask him the names of factories and pubs I barely knew, all of which are ghosts now, and I write it down so I’ll always remember.
It’s Spring. The hawthorn blossom is out, and the bushes are alive with birdsong. The local council – like a lot of local councils – is running out of money, and cutting services and jobs. I think we’ll see a lot more of that, and I don’t doubt that the jobs and the services that go will be the ones used by the poor, and that today’s businessman in the red Merc will say they brought it on themselves, and drive on somewhere else, to another part of the world less obviously industrial, where the poor won’t spoil his view.
But in a place whose history was built upon men and women forging the nuts and bolts which held together our industrial past, and the keys which gave it a future, people are doing what they’ve always done. Getting on with it. Making the best of things. Having a laugh and a joke, and working with what money comes to hand. Their resourcefulness, their pride, and their humour is part of a new language, their resilience is older than the hills. Maybe that’s what life among the ruins will be like. I don’t know. But I know that going back there feeds my soul.
Home is where the heart is, after all.



bees

I’ve written a lot of poems over the past eighteen months. Some of them have gone up on my website, others have been shared on facebook and Twitter, several became part of my set when I’m doing a gig, and a few haven’t yet found a home at all. In a quiet moment just before Xmas I decided the best of them belonged together, in a new book. So during January – dry January, when I wasn’t drinking, work was thin on the ground, and I had time on my hands – I got on with putting the book together.
As anyone who’s read my work will know, a fair number of my poems deal with current affairs, with politics, with providing some small counterbalance to the way we’re asked to view the world around us. A lot of them tackle serious issues with humour. Almost all of them address human resilience, people’s passion and enthusiasm for life despite the difficulties and disappointments of the day-to-day. I wanted the title of the book to reflect this, and came up with one idea after the other. None of them quite worked. Then I stumbled up on a six-line poem I’d jotted down in a notebook, and there it was, the perfect title: more bees bigger bonnets.
Compiling the book was easier than I thought. Then came the tricky part – putting it out to people for review. Contacting people I know and asking them to say something about my work took me a long way out of my comfort zone. It’s infinitely infinitely infinitely (note: three infinites is a LOT) more nerve-wracking than getting up in front of an audience, and just thinking about doing it made my toes curl in a way which defied the laws of physics and anatomy. Fortunately for me there are some very generous and talented people out there who took time out of their busy lives to read and review the book – and I’m incredibly grateful to them for doing that, as well as slightly overwhelmed by what they’ve had to say.
I’d originally set a publication date of 1st May – I liked the symbolism of unleashing the book into the world on a day of both celebration and defiance – but the book was ready to go to the printers a lot earlier than I expected. So I decided I’d put it on sale from 1st April, April Fools Day. I liked the symbolism of that, too. And now the printers are saying the books will be with me way earlier than the start of April, and – seeing as I have next to no understanding of the concept of delayed gratification, and am brim-full of the polar opposite of the patience of a saint – I’ve decided I’ll start selling it as soon as I can. Which means that I’m chuffed to bits to announce that more bees bigger bonnets will be available on the ignitebooks website from Monday 9th March. This means that anyone with the same level of impatience as me can get their mitts on it pretty damn quick.
Enough of the blather. One final point, and I’ll finish. I want my poems to get out there and be read by as many people as possible as soon as possible, so there’s a special low price on copies bought between now and the end of March. Patience may be a virtue, but – on this occasion at least – impatience shall get its reward.



idiocy and fear

As a kid, I was brought up catholic. I wasn’t a particularly good catholic, but I knew the ropes, knew when to kneel and stand and say the creed in Mass, and every six months or so my mom would drag me and my brothers and sisters to confession and we’d mumble a list of not-too-serious-not-too-embarrassing misdemeanours to the priest, say our penance, and go home.
Being catholic wasn’t something I ever gave a great deal of thought. But when I moved into the sixth form at school our General Studies teacher had different ideas. According to him, I was part of a great catholic plot, because my loyalty was owed – first, foremost, and forever – to the Pope. (He also believed that Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia and the Queen Mother were one and the same, based on the fact they looked alike in photographs and had never been seen in the same place at the same time, but that’s another story).
As far as I was concerned, this was garbage. At 17, I was more interested in memorising Black Sabbath lyrics, devouring anything Kerouac had written, and spending half an hour before school snogging my girlfriend in the local park then racing up the hill in time for registration (by the end of the school year I’d mastered both the circular breathing technique – incredibly useful – and the art of looking nonchalant while sprinting through Walsall with an erection, which was slightly trickier).
The teacher was insistent that I was part of an international plot.
I said I wasn’t.
Ah, he said, but you’re a catholic.
Well, yes.
And what does it say in the catholic creed?
Er….
It says you pledge allegiance to one holy catholic and apostolic church, doesn’t it?
Well, yes, it did. But that didn’t mean anything.
Ah, he said triumphantly, but it SAYS it. You can’t deny it.
I said I did deny it. I wasn’t part of any plot. At which point the teacher told me that I clearly wasn’t a real catholic. Brilliant. Not only did he know what catholics were really up to, he was also able to tell who the real catholics were. With that kind of skill at his fingertips, telling the difference between Tito and the Queen Mom should surely have been a doddle.
I knew a lot of catholics. Other kids at school, families at Mass each sunday, the priest in the confessional. Not once had I heard any of them suggest that life would be much better if the Pope just came over and took control, not once had any of them expressed any longing for a new life where the Vatican ruled. Maybe there were a few catholics who felt that way, but I didn’t know them. And in the unlikely event the Holy Father ever took me into his confidence and shared a scheme for world domination, I’d have pointed out to him that my interest in Black Sabbath, Jack Kerouac, and Olympic-grade snogging came way before the views of some old bloke in a funny hat.
I mention this because whenever I hear people start banging on about how all muslims mean to take over our country or establish a caliphate or kill infidels I think back to my General Studies teacher and his insistence I was part of a Vatican plot, his belief that all 1.2 billion catholics were of one mind, a hostile force, a fifth column who were not to be trusted. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. It ignores the blindingly obvious fact that most people are far more interested in putting food on the table, hanging out with their friends, and having a laugh than they are in taking over the world for their god. The idea that I had the same take on life as every other catholic – whether they were young or old, believed in the right to life or the right to choose, loved Black Sabbath or thought Ozzy was the devil incarnate (I rather hoped he was, as it happens) – was too ridiculous for words.
It shouldn’t even need saying in the 21st century, but the idea that all 2 billion muslims are the same is just as daft as anything my teacher came up with. However, a quick trawl through the marvel of social media makes it clear it does need saying. So I am. And – for the record – I don’t believe Marshal Tito and the Queen Mom were the same person either.

Sue me.



america

This year started with some great news. It’s taken me till now to write a blog about it because… well… because life’s been busy, because there aren’t enough hours in the day, and because the evidence shows I’m probably not quite as organised as I’d like to believe and am easily sidetracked by a good book or a day out on the mountain bike in winter sunshine.
The news – slightly old by now, I grant you – is this. At the start of the year I signed a contract with a publisher in the USA for them to print and distribute City Baby in North America. For those of you reading this blog and wondering what on earth City Baby is, it’s the autobiography of Ross Lomas, bassist with UK punk legends GBH, which I helped co-write, and which has been selling like hot cakes ever since. 
I got involved with writing Ross’s autobiography because it was a story which needed to be told, and which deserved to be told – not by some academic who would analyse the phenomenon of punk from a sociological perspective – but simply as a good rollocking tale related by Ross himself. The man who lived it.  A story complete with the ups and downs and the highs and lows which happen to anyone.
Working with Ross was an absolute pleasure, but the road to writing City Baby started long before I sat down with him in the back of my camper van and began recording what he had to say. I could say it started when I was lucky enough to have Steve Ignorant ask me if I wanted to work with him on the story of his life, The Rest Is Propaganda, but – while it’s certainly true that helped set me on the way – it started way before that, when I discovered I had a special interest in telling stories which would otherwise go unheard, simply because those are the stories I want to hear. Because without them – without the stories which re-balance the airbrushed histories of ‘great men’ – our view of the world around us gets skewed. We learn that people like us don’t matter, that nothing in our lives is worth recording, that no-one else shares our experiences, our hopes, or our fears. 
I thought those stories were worth writing down. The good news is that a lot of other people think so too. City Baby is on its third print run already, and with the US contract in place there’s every reason to believe a lot more people are going to get the chance to read Ross’s story for themselves, which makes me very happy. On top of that, I’m glad to say my old mate Steve Ignorant is finally making some money from his book – the previous publishers had a somewhat unorthodox approach to accounting – after taking over publication and distribution of it himself. If you want a copy of The Rest Is Propaganda (which is definitely worth a read whether you like punk or not) you can buy it direct from him here.
There. I finally wrote the blog. And there’s still time to get out on the bike. 
Result.



stupid

There was good news this week, and there was bad news. 
The good news is that scientists have discovered another Goldilocks planet, a planet at just the right distance from its star – not too hot, and not too cold – to offer the prospect of supporting human life, or something like it. And given that we seem hell-bent on making a pig’s ear of our current home, having somewhere else as a back-up could be kind of handy.
The bad news is that the planet – Kepler 438b, if you wondered, which isn’t quite as snappy a moniker as ‘Earth’, but then I guess you can’t have everything – is 475 light years away. Even longer by bus. So getting there isn’t going to be like nipping round your mom’s when the boiler in your bedsit goes belly-up in a cold snap. It’s going to be tricky. Oh, and the sky might well be red, so you’d be living in something akin to perpetual sunrise, or – for those of you who don’t do mornings – sunset. And, for better or worse, it’s unlikely they have the bedroom tax, Simon Cowell, or Channel 5. 
If that scientific bombshell isn’t enough to make you aware of our collective unimportance in the grand scheme of things, then I don’t know what is. If you can ponder the mind-boggling distances involved in getting to Kepler 438b and decide you’re still going to hate Ali from down the road because his skin’s a different colour, then – no offence intended – but you’re a stone-dead idiot. And I know it’s a little late, and we’re not off to the best of starts, but how about we make our new year resolution for 2015 to give up on stupidity?
Let’s decide that this year – as a species – we stop looking for simple answers to complex problems just because they’re answers which suit us, answers which pin the blame on other members of our species who speak a different language or worship a different god. We’ve tried it before, after all, and it never ends well. How about a little bit of perspective instead? We’re each of us here for the blink of an eye, with millions of years of evolution behind us, clinging onto a small blue-green planet spinning through the backwaters of space where a gossamer-thin atmosphere is the only thing saving us from extinction and our best hope of a second home is so far away that whatever lives there hasn’t heard about the Great Fire of London yet.
In that context, whether someone’s drawing cartoons which you find offensive is neither here nor there. Nor is how they speak or dress. Or who they sleep with. Hate speech just looks more stupid than ever, up there with holding grudges over slights no-one else cares about, or choosing to carry on fighting wars that ended when Noah was a boy.
I know it’s not going to be that simple. I know it’ll take more than a new-found sense of perspective to stop our resident chumps of the political extremes from hanging onto their bigotry, despite overwhelming evidence of its irrelevance. No doubt Nigel Farage will heap praise on Kepler 438b’s strict immigration policies – no Bulgarians, natch – and by next week that pantomime villain Anjem Choudary will have claimed it as part of the Caliphate. Idiots will always be idiots. Personally, I hope whatever creatures live there have learned to rub along together rather better than we have, and that they aren’t treating their planet like a dustbin and are proud of their NHS. And if any of them who are reading this put on poetry gigs, and think that last sentence sounds like I’m pitching for a gig, damn right. It’ll look great on my CV and it beats the hell out of Glastonbury. How about it Kepler 438b? You up for it? 
Drop me a line.



the day job

I know the popular image of rock’n’roll road crew is that they’re a hard-drinking bunch of ne’er-do-wells, chock full of drugs and nonsense, which is why it may come as a surprise to hear that last night’s conversation on the tour bus was about relativity, and how that affects time. Why does a clock sent into space for a month show a different time when it returns from one which stayed on earth?
From this conversation I’ve learned the following: that riggers don’t age as fast because they work high up in the arena roof, further from the centre of the earth.* That a crew who work from stage left to stage right (where left is in the east) will end up slightly younger than a crew who work from right to left. That if a tour is planned so that the dates run sequentially westwards round the world, it’s entirely possible to live forever.
Now I may have got some of that wrong – I was hopelessly out of my depth during the discussion, and did keep trying to steer the chat back to knob gags – but you get the gist. Tonight’s topic is the legacy of the Hundred Years War, followed by a debate about the future of public transport infrastructure in the UK. 
I’m not entirely sure this is what I signed up for when I got into the business. What ever happened to the drugs and nonsense??? *sigh*
*this advantage is more than outweighed by the lifestyle of the traditional rigger.



louder than words

Some weekends live long in the memory. Last weekend will surely be one. I spent it at the Louder Than Words festival in Manchester, in the sumptuous Palace Hotel, and – as with all the best festivals – I really didn’t want it to end.
The festival’s format is simple, yet unique. It’s an entire weekend devoted to giving people connected one way or another with making a living from music the opportunity to talk about their experiences, or share their expertise, or draw our attention to a sliver of music history which might otherwise go unnoticed. And it works incredibly well.
Now the cynics amongst you might think that – given the reputation of the music biz – this festival would be nothing more than one self-indulgent orgy of Me! Me! Me! Look at ME! Nothing could be further from the truth. It was informative, it was entertaining, and above all it was inspiring. I learned about the trials and tribulations of making a living from running an online music magazine; I listened to hilarious tales of encounters with the legends of rock, and searing critiques of digital corporate giants; I sat in on a discussion about goth subculture, featuring my old mate Si Denbigh and the wonderful Rosie Garland; I was entertained by anecdotes about the history of independent record shops, their demise, and their current resurgence; I met up with Steve Ignorant for the first time in ages (it’s been too long); I was enthralled by Viv Albertine’s candid talk about life as one of The Slits.
There was all this and more. All of it took place with a remarkable lack of ego, and with an equally remarkable and generous helping of passion. I can’t think when I was last at an event which did so much to encourage and promote the intrinsic human desire to be – in whatever way – creative. And away from the talks and the discussions, there was plenty of opportunity for some good banter over a coffee, or a pint, or a pint of coffee. Or another pint.
When I wasn’t revelling in the words of others, I was busy being the festival poet, reading a selection of my poems (including this one about the legend that is Wilko Johnson) linked and woven together by the theme of music. I did five sets in two days, which was utterly exhilarating. Huge thanks to everyone who came along and listened, or who bought my books, and even huger thanks to the festival organisers for inviting me, and for all their hard work and their vision in putting the festival together in the first place.
Put it in your diaries for next year. folks. You won’t regret it.



spam

When I put together this website, my hope and intention was to showcase my work and share it with a wider audience. I also wanted to hear back from people, to make room on the website for them to let me know how they felt about a poem or a blog, so – wide-eyed and cyber-innocent – I left posts open for comment (subject to moderation, of course – I’m not that wide-eyed).
And some of you did. But I also learned about spam. Industrial quantities of spam generated by countless spambots. I’d log onto my site and there’d be something like 2000 comments awaiting moderation, none of them in any way connected with poetry, some suggesting they could help me increase the traffic to my site (yeah, I’ll bet) but the vast majority claiming to be from vendors of Ugg boots, Chanel, Gucci, and NFL shirts. This was bad news – partly because I had no reason to believe they’d even read my poems or blogs, which was disappointing – but also because I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of those products, either individually or in combination.  
So, reluctantly, I closed my blogs and poems to comments. But the spam still got through. I logged on yesterday and there were 2,399 comments awaiting moderation. Those Ugg boot vendors are nothing if not persistent. Generally, that’s something I respect, but after two years of being given the hard-sell, something snapped. I contacted my friendly web-guru, he pointed me in the direction of a plug-in (whatever that is) for the website and hey presto! No more spam.
Bliss.
All of which is my way of letting you know that all the posts – each and every poem, and each and every blog – on my website are now open for comments again. That may mean nothing to you, but it means a very great deal to me. It means the site is once again what I always wanted it to be – an avenue for communication and connection – as well as a place for me to post my work. If you’ve five minutes spare, have a mooch around. Comment if you want to. No worries if you don’t.
There’s even a new poem. I hope you enjoy it. 
Anyone fancy a pair of Ugg boots?

unlikely places

The first time I went to Scunthorpe, I was looking after a cheesy rock band who played the old Scunthorpe Baths to a disinterested audience of three apathetic men who hadn’t even bothered to boost their numbers by bringing a dog. To put the icing on the cake, we had a long drive home and the bassist threw up in the van somewhere near Derby. It was an evening as far removed from the tawdry glamour of rock’n’roll as it’s possible to get.
Last week I went up to Scunthorpe again – this time to read my poetry – and was blown away by what I found.
The gig had come about in the way these things so often do. A friend said You should play Scunthorpe and pointed me at an arts venue. I contacted them. They were closed for re-furbishment, and couldn’t help, but suggested I try A new venue in town. They put on acoustic stuff. They’re pretty cool. One email and a couple of phone calls later and the gig was on. This new, cool venue had never put on a spoken-word event before, but they liked the idea of doing it, and I liked the idea of going somewhere new, and we agreed a date and I put it in the diary. When the day came, I got on the motorbike and headed north into the unknown, wondering what I’d let myself in for.
What I’d let myself in for was an education.
If ever you want to see what a small group of determined and imaginative people can achieve when they put their minds to it, do yourselves a favour. Go to Scunthorpe, and pop into Café Indiependent. In a previous life, the café was a Co-op shop, but now – with funding secured from the lottery gods, and a lot of hard work – it’s been transformed into an impossibly cool and funky venue halfway up the High Street. It’s way bigger than you might expect. It serves great coffee and good food. It’s hip in a way Hoxton can only dream of. It’s all this and more.
And it’s the ‘more’ which blew my mind. 
See, it shouldn’t be that difficult to create a world where all towns have their own Café Indiependent. Cafés which run ‘suspended coffee’ schemes for homeless people, employ youth workers, put on training courses, offer somewhere for acoustic musicians to play, and nurture the art and the dreams and the creativity of anyone and everyone who comes in. Because Scunthorpe has shown it can be done. It’s shown that you don’t have to leave a small town for the big city just because you want something more than what’s traditionally been on offer. Instead, you bring it to your town. And – with determination, and imagination, and a lot of hard work – you create something utterly amazing. 
The gig? It couldn’t have gone better. At the end of the night, I curled up on a sofa in the venue under my bike jacket and slept like a king. Next morning I lay there thinking how – almost without exception – the most memorable and enjoyable gigs are the ones I go to on a wing and a prayer, and come back from feeling humbled and inspired and incredibly lucky to have done. This was one of them. 
One day every town will be like you, Scunthorpe. Thank you. And all the very best.

blackpool

I can only guess it’s got something to do with my northern heritage, but I absolutely revel in  the long days of summer. As the hours of daylight increase, so does my activity, and it’s definitely the season of the year when I’m going be hell-bent on writing, and performing, and pitching for gigs.
So, before I edge towards an equally inevitable hibernation, here’s a blog.

Last week, I was up in Blackpool, taking part in Rebellion Festival once more. It was every bit as wonderful as ever. Old friends and new faces. Music and beer. Sea air and sunsets. And, for the first time, a space and a stage for poetry in its own right, where I met up with some poets I already knew and others whose work was something new to savour. A weekend of words in among the punk rock. 

One of the joys of an event like this is the chance to watch other poets at work, to see how they present themselves on stage, to hear what they have to say. All of us are busy learning the craft of trusting our audience to come with us, learning to have the confidence that they’ll be willing to appreciate and enjoy poetry which is dark or complex or angry just as readily as they’ll enjoy a comic rant aimed at the obvious targets. 
And of course there are the wonderful moments when someone who’d come along out of curiosity chooses to stay and listen, or confides afterwards that they didn’t think they liked poetry, but you know what? It’s ok. Yours is ok. It’s just talking to people, isn’t it? If only poetry had been like this in school they might have enjoyed it….
Few things beat that. Because, as someone else wrote recently, performance is all about connection. About me connecting with you, you with me. About reminding ourselves that it’s the moments when we speak to each other and listen to each other and hear each other that count. It’s that urge for connection which drove me to record this video, in the hope that it becomes another small piece in a jigsaw which keeps that conversation of connection alive. 
Poets. We throw out words and hope their echo does something to change the world, to make it better. Maybe I’ll see you at Rebellion next year, and we’ll see how we’ve done.

gaza

There are times when writing poetry seems a vain irrelevance. What on earth is the point in poetry when the news has become some kind of macabre scorecard of death? Really, in the face of such a brutal assault on people with nowhere to go, what place does poetry have? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot recently. Watching the crisis in Gaza unfold I’ve had the same response to what I see and hear as so many other people I know: disbelief turns to fury, and fury becomes a hopeless rage at my impotence to do anything much to help change the situation. Next comes growing frustration, and – as the violence goes on and on and on and suave government spokesmen sit in TV studios and echo the party line that none of anything that’s happened is their fault – there is, eventually, an almost overwhelming sense of despair.
And what good is poetry? Poems don’t comfort traumatised children, or staunch wounds, or provide bandages and medical care. They don’t save lives. All I can hope is that – maybe – they occasionally do a little something to help to re-draw the way we understand what’s going on. That once in a while they make some kind of stand in opposition to the brutal logic of war, a logic which sees ever-increasing violence against a civilian population as being the only possible course of action and sets about it with vigour and high-explosives. 
The poet Michael Rosen has written extensively and eloquently about the conflict in Gaza. He’s not alone. In her poem Running Orders Lena Khalaf Tuffaha takes us into a world which can be destroyed at any moment by a ‘roof knock’, and renders irrelevant any discussion about war being targeted, or surgical, or civilised. Right now, there’s an anthology of poetry for Gaza being put together, whose proceeds will go to humanitarian relief there. And yes, it’s not enough. How could it be? But it’s something. It’s a start, a contribution to setting out our determination to create a better world. And if we take that contribution and add it to countless other contributions, large and small, then maybe we do change things. I think we have to hope so. 
And if all that sounds a little woolly, a little bit pie-in-the-sky, and you’ve read this and think poetry counts for sod-all squared and then some, and you’re hankering for getting involved in some more direct kind of help, then you can always donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians. God knows they need the cash.

propaganda

One of the lasting legacies of punk is the idea that if you want something done you may well be best off rolling up your sleeves, knuckling down, and doing it yourself. If you want to put your record out, print your own t-shirts, or book your own gigs, get on with it. Will it be hard work? Yes. Will it be maddening and frustrating? Yes. Will it pay dividends? Absolutely. 
The origins of this DIY culture are simple. Punks didn’t like what they saw in the music industry. They’d seen other people be ripped off and lied to, and they didn’t want it to happen to them. They didn’t want to see their work shoehorned into a form they didn’t want, in a cover they didn’t like, by record companies who stopped listening to them before the ink was even dry on the contract. So they decided that rather than lose control over what happened to their music, they’d put it out themselves. Doing this might mean they’d make mistakes, or that they’d lose out on a company’s dubious expertise and contacts, but at least they’d be in charge of their own destiny, and at least they’d know where the money went. At least they knew they’d always get a straight answer from themselves. Put like that, DIY was the obvious way to go.
For all those reasons and more I’m very happy to learn that my old mate Steve Ignorant has finally decided to print his own version of his autobiography, The Rest Is Propaganda, and make it available through his own online shop. It’s been a while coming, but at last it’s here, and on sale, and in the end that’s all that matters.
We know that a lot of you have already bought it – it’s four years since we worked on putting Steve’s life story together and getting it into print, after all – but if you know anyone who hasn’t bought it yet, or you need another copy, then Mr Ignorant’s Outstanding Online Emporium is the place to go. Here you’ll be able to buy a copy which has the edits and changes Steve has long wanted to see (making it a better book) and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing the money will be going into Steve’s pocket, rather than disappearing who knows where. And that can only be a good thing.
Oh, and spread the word, please. Steve deserves it.

million voices

I’ve been up and down the country over the past few weeks, doing poetry gigs, and – to be honest – I’ve had a blast. I’ve read in cafes, in pubs, and at festivals. I’ve stood up in front of strangers and shared my words and hoped that what seemed so well-crafted when I scribbled it down will manage to make some kind of connection with these people whose names I don’t yet know. And mostly, that’s exactly what’s happened.
In return, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to dozens of other voices. I’ve heard a bouncer read a comic poem about working in a club when it all kicks off. I’ve listened to love poems (gay and straight). I’ve heard poems about holidays, and poems about hating poems about holidays. There have been political poems, personal poems, heartfelt poems, poems that grab you by the shoulders and get right in your face, and quiet poems you’re still thinking about hours later. Poems by students and by pensioners, by office-workers and by punks. Joyous poems, funny poems, poems packed with rage. Confident poems by people who’ve read their work out loud a thousand times, and poems sick with nerves from people who’ve never stood in front of an audience before but have decided tonight’s the night they’ll give it a go.
It’s one of the things I love about poetry: that it gives everyone a voice. That’s really all you need. Pen and paper are optional, and you can sing if you want to, but really it’s just the voice. Your voice. Your chance to say what’s on your mind, no matter how old you are, no matter what your background, or your gender, your nationality or your creed. Because, at it’s best, poetry is wonderfully democratic. It’s all about communication, about me sharing my perspective with you, you sharing yours with me. As simple as that.
I know some people might get a bit sniffy about all this. They might mutter about the quality of some of the poetry, dismiss it as doggerel, or clumsy, or crude. But I see poetry evenings giving people the opportunity to to get up and say their piece, to share something they’ve crafted, and to listen to others. I see people meeting up, enjoying some sense of community, and learning from each other, if they want to. In a world which very often denies them a voice, they can become one of a million voices, all with something to say, and all listened to respectfully for the time they’re at the mike. And you don’t need to buy any expensive gear. There’s no branding, there’s no corporate nonsense. There’s just you, an audience, and the chance to say whatever’s on your mind.
Poetry. It’s a blast. And I love it.

knaves and scoundrels

The history we’re told is generally the history of the good and the great. The history of kings and queens, of the powerful and the wealthy. Important historical figures rarely struggle to find someone to tell their story, and the self-important are all too ready to tell their own. If you want a lesson in hubris, walk into any bookshop in the country and check out the cut-price offerings from former politicians or celebs who’ve gone from household name to remainder pile before the ink is dry on the page.
Personally, I’ve always had a far greater passion for stories about people who live on the margins of society, who dwell in the footnotes of history. People who are all but invisible, and all too easily forgotten. At a time when our society seems to consider the installation of spikes on areas of paving to be an acceptable response to the problem of homelessness, telling these stories seems more important than ever.
Poetry – despite what Jeremy Paxman thinks – has a rich tradition of passing on hidden history, of keeping radical and dissenting voices alive. At the start of this week I was lucky enough to be at a poetry event in London where one of the poets read a piece about a woman called Kate Sharpley, the woman who threw her medals at Queen Mary, wife of George V.
It was 1917. Kate was 22. Her father, brother, and boyfriend had all been killed in a war they’d been told would be over by Xmas, and Queen Mary was visiting the East End to hand out medals to plucky, grieving families. To people like Kate, whose expected role was to meekly and gratefully accept a mouthful of platitudes and a handful of gongs as some kind of recompense for her loss.
But when Kate was given her medals, she threw them back in Queen Mary’s face, shouting “If you like them so much, you can have them!” The royal visage was scratched. Royal blood flowed. This was not the done thing. Not. At. All. For not knowing her place, for daring to question the order of things, for failing to bottle up her grief and her rage and her politics, Kate Sharpley was dragged away by police, thrown in a cell, and beaten so badly that when she was released – without charge – four days later, her friends barely recognised her.
I wonder if the police who beat Kate Sharpley believed they were teaching her the British Values of tolerance, democracy, and individual liberty which Michael Gove seems so keen to promote. Perhaps they did. After all, Gove’s proposals seem aimed more at garnering some kind of knee-jerk support based on nationalistic prejudice than on actually trying to help create a more tolerant society.
Maybe it would be an idea for someone in a position of power – the Secretary of State for Education, perhaps – to get Kate Sharpley’s story told in schools to set that right. To celebrate our history of dissent and show a little humility when it comes to our record on tolerance.
Go on, Mikey, give it a go. Surprise me.

bad coffee

Why I’m giving up on Caffè Nero.
When it comes to an exercise in futility, I’ve learned there’s precious little to choose between dealing with the PR arm of a coffee shop chain and banging your head against a brick wall. I may not always be too quick on the uptake, but a fortnight in I’ve decided it’s time to stop.
Two weeks ago, the Head Of Customer Services at Caffè Nero wrote to me and offered me a meeting, or a chat over the phone. I’m not daft, I know she only did that because my letter to them had gone viral. On top of that, other people were writing to them to say they wouldn’t use their shops either, and that meant my letter had become something they had to answer, rather than ignore. So, I was sent a letter.
I read it, chose the meeting over the phone call, and asked that it be on the record. Immediately after that, things got complicated, and increasingly slow.
By now I was dealing with Caffè Nero’s Communications Manager. She emailed me to say that before there was any possibility of talking on the record with me about their tax affairs, there were three things I needed to know. Firstly, they needed a private dialogue with me, as this would help them to understand my frustrations. Secondly, Caffè Nero was a company which didn’t seek publicity. Thirdly, they didn’t want to get involved in a public point and counter-point about tax.
I responded to her first point by assuring her I wasn’t frustrated and I didn’t need understanding, just answers. The second claim? Well, that wasn’t really credible, seeing as Caffè Nero’s CEO had been all over the business pages of the Daily Telegraph in early April talking about the company’s success and their plans for future expansion. Her third point? I had no doubt whatsoever that was true.
But – despite two weeks of email ping-pong – Caffè Nero won’t budge. They insist on this private dialogue, with the possibility of a talk about tax at some unspecified point down the line. To me, that sounds a lot like kicking the whole thing into the long grass. While I’ve been trying to arrange a meeting, they’ve been responding to other people who wrote to them about their tax affairs, saying how frustrating it is to see an incomplete picture of their situation in the press. Given the opportunity to redress the balance, you’d think they’d bite your hand off. Instead, they’ve become inexplicably coy.
My reading of this? I think Caffè Nero have decided they’ve weathered the storm. The social media furore has died down, and there’s nothing to gain – and possibly a great deal to lose – by going on the record just because a poet wants you to.
Fortunately, that’s neither here nor there. Over the past couple of weeks, two independent finance and tax experts have – separately – taken a good look into how Caffè Nero works. Their results have provided the rational analysis to complement my emotional sense that, while what Caffè Nero are doing may be legal, it isn’t right. And that when Caffè Nero claim all their profit is eaten up repaying interest to UK banks, that really isn’t the whole picture.
These past few weeks end as they started. I’m still just an ordinary bloke who wrote a letter which happened to strike a chord with a lot of people. The only reason Caffè Nero ever sat up and took notice was because thousands of people shared it and re-tweeted it.  That surprised me, and it surprised Caffè Nero too. Over the past two weeks, it’s become clear it’s probably the one thing we’ve got in common.
Right now, I suspect someone somewhere in Caffè Nero’s PR machine is feeling pretty pleased with themselves. I suspect that may be a mistake. Whatever happens from here on, though, I’ll be drinking my coffee elsewhere.

coffee

It has, by any standards, been a hell of a week. if anyone had told me that one of the leading trends on Twitter this week would be a letter penned by a poet to a coffee company, I’d have laughed. If anyone had told me that poet would be me, I’d have assumed they were ever so slightly deranged.
For those of you who missed the social media whirlwind I found myself at the centre of, here’s a quick resumé of what happened…. Poet reads Caffè Nero made £21.1 million in profit but paid no corporation tax. Poet gets angry. Poet writes letter to Caffè Nero, sends it, posts photo of letter on Facebook and Twitter, and goes to bed thinking if he’s lucky a couple of friends will notice what he’s done. Poet wakes up in the morning and the world and its dog are sharing what has now become THAT LETTER. Poet picks jaw off ground, starts playing catch-up with cyberspace, and for the next few days spends far longer in front of the computer than he should.
That’s the long and the short of it. And I can now tell you that it’s one thing to know that occasionally social media takes a subject and makes it go viral, but knowing that doesn’t in any way prepare you for the surreal and unworldly sensation of waking up and finding that for the best part of a week it’s your letter that is the viral phenomenon.
Through all this, by the way, there was no response from Caffè Nero.
.
Then the BBC rang. Then The Independent. A radio station in Adelaide covered what was going on because the letter had gone viral in Australia. And suddenly the head of Caffè Nero customer services had written me a letter saying they didn’t take my claims lightly, and would I like to meet one of her colleagues so they could provide a response. Well, what’s a man to say? I mulled it over through the evening, and this morning I emailed her to say yes, that would be wonderful.
I had just one condition. Given the publicity and the media interest the story had generated, I assumed they’d be fine with it being on the record.
Since when, silence. Which is something of a surprise. I mean, I’d have thought that a major coffee company – with nothing to hide and an urgent desire to put this story to bed – would have fired back an email within minutes, saying Sure, no problem, when and where?
But Caffè Nero haven’t. The working day is drawing to a close and there’s been nothing from them. Zip. Nada. If I was a cynical kind of person I might wonder whether a large business was deciding that the fickle world of social media has moved on already, and that the need to meet a poet who wrote them a letter over a week ago has already gone. If I was a really cynical person – and I’m not, dear reader, of course I’m not – I might wonder if the idea that the meeting would be on record is a problem. I can’t honestly see why it would be, because I know there’s nothing they’d say or do in a meeting they’d be concerned about standing by later. So I guess it must be something else entirely. But I’m just a poet, and what it might be escapes me.
So I do what poets do, and write about it all. And then I post it on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe a couple of friends will notice what I’ve done. Maybe it’ll be a few more. Maybe it’ll be none. Maybe someone will share it and wonder what Caffè Nero are up to, and maybe they won’t. Who knows? After all, it’s a funny old world, and you never quite know what’s coming…
Links to news coverage of what went on:
BBC coverage
The Independent
Morning Star piece

emperor’s new clothes

I’m the first to hold my hands up and say I don’t know a great deal about modern art. Occasionally I see something that thrills me, or makes me chuckle, or surprises me. Some of it leaves me cold. Much of the time it irritates me in that I-don’t-get-it kind of way, where it looks for all the world as though someone threw their work together in five minutes when they were mortally hungover and their editorial process was still throwing up in the loo. Despite this, the artist always finds the wherewithal to create the all-important accompanying text to explain how their piece subverts this, offers a critique of that, deconstructs the other blah blah blah… All said with the glib sincerity of a snake-oil salesman. But I concede that more than a little of my irritation boils down to the simple fact that I don’t get it. And the truth is that however much someone who’s more sympathetic to the genre tries to explain it to me, it’ll never speak to me anywhere near as much as sunlight glittering on water, or music which makes me want to dance, or – when I was younger – get in the moshpit. And that’s fine. There’s room in this world for us all.
But it’s never made me angry. Until today. Though, like I say, maybe it’s my problem for not getting it.
The piece I’m talking about is a video. 160cm Line by Santiago Sierra. If you want to copy this work at home, this is all you need to do. Take four women – preferably addicted to heroin, preferably selling their body to feed their habit – pay them each the price of a hit, and then tattoo a horizontal line – presumably 40cm long – on each of their backs, between their shoulder-blades. Oh, and record the whole thing on video, of course. Justify it by saying it’s impossible to change the world, that back on the street the women would have to give three blow-jobs to earn what you’ve just paid them, that thousands of others would have formed a queue, had the tattoo and taken the money, if you’d only let them.
The cynicism and the failure of imagination are breathtaking.
We learn nothing new from this video. We already know that people who are poor and desperate and addicted will do pretty much anything for cash, and that there will always be others with money and power who will take advantage. Exploitation isn’t art just because you film it being done. Exploitation isn’t art just because you shrug your shoulders and say there’s nothing we can do (while pocketing the money you make on the back of it, natch). Exploitation isn’t art, Santiago. It’s simply exploitation.
The 160cm Line would never have been etched into the backs of Santiago’s friends. Or on himself. You’re never going to see a video where the wealthy and powerful in our society line up to take part. But making a video of four nameless women, that’s ok. Santiago tying his work to the tawdry glamour of sex and drugs and degradation, that’s ok. Making money on the backs of the powerless? Absolutely ok.
Like I say, maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it. But I watch someone making a mint – and a career – out of exploiting the weak and the vulnerable while denying he owes them anything other than the price of a hit, at the same time that organisations which work with them to repair the damage and try and turn their lives around get their budgets slashed, and – let’s just say the point escapes me.
It’s hard to see this work as being anything more than a callous, self-serving piece which trumpets a lack of humanity. Where a rich man does it to powerless women, just because he can. The wonder is he seems to have convinced the art world he’s saying something more.
a couple of footnotes:
1. I may be coming to this debate a little late, because the piece of work I’m talking about was created fourteen years ago. So it’s entirely possible the furore is done, dusted, and put to bed, and I’m way behind the times. In which case, indulge me.
2. I normally disable the ‘comments’ facility on my blog, as I was getting bombarded by spambots, but I’m leaving it open for now because I’d like to hear what other people think. All comments will have to be approved (anti-spambot tactics) but they will appear.

sobering

In the last couple of months, two old mates have died. They were people I knew well enough to share a laugh and a joke with, people I spent a lot of time with back in the day when we worked on the crew in Leeds, humping heavy boxes in and out of trucks at obscene hours of the night, often cash in hand, never with insurance, and thought that our readiness to be available at a moment’s notice with no promise of regular work meant we were way smarter than the average bear.
I guess we had to think like that to do the job. Were we right? We might have been. It’s hard to say. Time has dulled the bright certainties we swore by back then, and when I think of these two dead friends, it feels like looking back to another world I can no longer be quite sure I know my way around.
One thing is sure: we were either too chaotic, or wanted too much by way of intensity, to fit comfortably into what we saw as the crushing boredom of a 9-5. And crewing offered us the opportunity to grab hold of the glamorous coat-tails of rock’n’roll, stay up half the night and get paid for it, and end up with enough money in our pockets for food and beer. It helped us create a lifestyle where we could have some kind of stab – however clumsy and ill-considered – at following our dreams. Half the bands in Leeds had members on the crew, and alongside them were anarchists, DJs, university drop-outs, and at least one poet. We were a bunch of people who just wanted to sit in a pub on an afternoon when the rest of the world was working and bounce ideas off each other. And we took drugs, and got laid, and thought we could live like that forever. Death, like taxes, was something for other people to worry about.
Now all of us, to some extent or other, have made compromises our younger selves would have scoffed at. It’s what happens. You get older, and slower, and the world takes some of the edges off you, and staying up all night getting wasted – again – seems somehow less attractive than it did when you were twenty-five. But the crew I keep in touch with are still a contrary bunch, even now. They’re still angry, still critical, still creative. Some of them are still musicians. A lot of them work in the industry, because life among those glamorous coat-tails is the best way they know to pay the bills, and allows them to believe – sometimes, and usually against all the evidence – that they’re just a little bit smarter than the average bear.
And every now and then one of the old faces drops away, and we hear about it by text or phone or the bush telegraph of facebook. And hand-in-hand with the disbelief and the sense of loss comes the recognition that we got things wrong. We never thought we’d get to be this old, and we were wrong. We never thought we’d end up paying taxes either, and we couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Back then in those days down the pub, playing pool and waiting for the speed to kick in, with no idea what we’d be doing this time next week, and less interest, we learned to busk it. And we’re busking it still.
And I don’t regret a minute of it.
Not one.

resolutions

I’ve started 2014 with a few New Year resolutions. In no particular order, they are:
1. cut down on alcohol
2. shift a few pounds
3. get fit
4. seize the day
5. find adventures
6. abolition of a system which puts money before people, blames the poor for everything, has its head in the sand about climate change, and generally treats the planet as just another item on a profit-and-loss spreadsheet.
I’m doing OK on the first few. I’m sticking to dry January amongst all the floods, and getting out on the mountain bike and up some hills as much as I can. But that last item? Well, it could prove tricky. Every now and then the UK lurches to the right, and politicians start mouthing inanities like No such thing as society and worshipping more fervently than ever before at the bloodied altar of monetarism. It’s happening now. Much of what’s going on feels like the worst of the 80s, revisited, and we all know how glad we were to see the back of them. So I don’t expect that particular resolution to get anywhere before Easter weekend, earliest.
Still worth aiming for, though.
In the meantime, I’m hunting for gigs. If you run a poetry night, get in touch. If you know the person who runs a poetry night, get them to get in touch. And if there’s nothing like that where you live, but you’d like me to come and gig there and you can get a dozen or so mates together, drop me a line. We’ll organise something in the back room of a pub, or someone’s front room, or something. There are too many people for whom the idea of listening to poetry is slightly less enticing than pulling out their own teeth with a pair of rusty pliers, and this year I’d like to change that, one audience at a time.
More of the good stuff. Less of the bad. Life’s too short and too precious for anything else.
May 2014 be good to you and those you love. Now, where’s that mountain bike?

eye off the ball

Oops. Two months since I last added a blog to the website. That’s a bit slack. But then, in my defence, I’ve been a bit busy. City Baby, which I helped write (and which I may have mentioned before, once or twice) was officially published on October 1st, and – well – let’s just say things went a little bit manic.
The book got great reviews in Vive Le Rock, Record Collector, and Sidewalk magazines, and an even better one – if that’s possible – on the Louder Than War website. (You can read it here if you haven’t already.) One month later, on November 1st, the final copy was sold and we were on the phone, babbling incoherently to the printers about needing some more. I think they got the gist of what we were saying, eventually, and the books are on their way.
Most of the time, this blog ends up being about my poetry. Today, I hope you’ll excuse me for blowing my own trumpet – and no, madam, that isn’t a euphemism (they’re bigger) – about a very different style of writing. One which is collaborative where the poetry isn’t. Because to create City Baby, as with the Steve Ignorant book before that, the key to it all was sitting down with someone and working out the best way to help them tell their story. And I have a passion for stories. Especially the kind of stories which otherwise go untold and, all too often, forgotten.
Ross’s story, which we tell in City Baby, is an absolute cracker, and – every time I take a moment to stop and reflect on what’s happened – I’m happier than I have words to say that so many people think so too. If you want a story of survival, of friendship and loyalty and excess, a story packed with laughter and so honest it’ll make your eyes sting, then – whether you know the first thing about punk rock or not – it’s more than worth a read. Don’t take my word for it. Check with Louder Than War.
So, there you go. Trumpet duly blown, missus. City Baby is being re-printed, my first book of poems Shattered has almost sold out, and Island Songs is odds on to break even before the end of the year (with a bit of luck and a following wind, anyway). Life could be worse. I hope yours is good. And I hope, for all of us, 2013 ends on a bit of a high note.
Because I like tales of survival.