golden days

OK, where did the summer go? Last time I sat down to write a blog, August still stretched out before me with the promise of golden days and summer heat. Now, there’s mist in the mornings and I’m putting on the lights not long after I’ve had my tea.
Much has happened in the meantime, though. The ‘poets, prattlers, and pandemonialists’ venture to Edinburgh was a joy, outstripping our wildest dreams (well, probably not our wildest) of how things would go. We had a blast, we saw some great shows – spoken word, documentary talks, and theatre pieces – and we pulled enough of an audience each evening to cover our costs and put money in our pockets for a beer. Given that the average audience for a Free Fringe show is four people, that’s quite an achievement.
From there, I trundled up to Orkney in the camper van – yes, that’s the van with the newly-fettled brakes and steering – for a few days kicking back, watching seabirds and sunsets, and fitting in a pay-as-you-feel poetry gig in Kirkwall. I love the inclusiveness of these gigs: if you’re skint, you’re still welcome; if you’re curious about poetry, there’s no price-tag to deter you; if you love poetry, we’ll see you there. There’s an honesty about it. And of course, there’s the element of uncertainty, that edge, wondering just how much money you’ll find in the hat at the end of the night. And the surprise when you find out.
Thereafter, southwards via a string of festivals to another pay-as-you-feel gig in Falmouth (if you’re visiting, I recommend you check out the Chintz bar, it’s a splendid one-off of a place) and a chance to play in the surf before the summer slipped away. My annual ritual to mark the passing of the seasons. And now I’m home. I’ve a new book at the printers – I’ll be posting a blog about that, and the Wolverhampton book launch, very soon – and months of mists and mellow fruitfulness to come. Bring it on.
P.S. If, like me, you don’t do deferred gratification, the good news is that the book’s on sale already. You can click and buy it here.

festival time

The day is almost upon us. From Friday, I’ll be in Edinburgh. Saturday is the first date in a one-week run of ‘Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists’ the spoken-word-show-piece-of-theatre type thingummy I’ve been rehearsing with Dave Pitt and Emma Purshouse. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it’s been working with this pair of reprobates – because it absolutely has – but if you come along to the show I’m sure you’ll see exactly what I mean.
There’s still so much to do before I leave tomorrow morning. And yes, the eagle-eyed among you are right: that does mean I’m taking two days to get to Edinburgh. I’ve copies of the ‘punk in Walsall’ newspaper to drop off at Rebellion Festival in Blackpool tomorrow lunchtime, and a gig in Appleby in Cumbria that evening. But first I need to get the van back from the garage – the small matter of getting brakes and steering fixed before I set off – pack everything I need for a week at the Fringe, wash, shop, and fit in one final rehearsal. 

Sometimes it’s exhausting just thinking about it. But it’s also wonderfully, madly, bounce-up-and-down-like-a-kid-on-his-way-to-the-seaside exciting. It’s great to be taking part in the Fringe anyway, but to be doing it with two good mates, and with a piece of theatre I’m really proud to have played a part in helping create, well, that just takes the biscuit.
Watch this space for all the news of our adventure!

edinburgh

Sometimes, an idea blurted out on the spur of the moment in the course of a few drinks down the pub, a nothing, a casual aside you never really expect will go anywhere, well, it proves to be a moment of genius no-one ever expected.
That’s the nearest I can come to explaining the concept of ‘poets, prattlers, and pandemonialists’. An idea which first saw the light of day as myself, Dave Pitt, and Emma Purshouse wrapped ourselves round a fourth (or maybe fifth) pint during one of our regular meetings in a pub in Wolverhampton. We liked each other’s poetry, we got on, we had a laugh and took the mick out of each other like there was no tomorrow, so why not work together? What could possibly go wrong?
That was less than a year ago. Since then, we’ve run poetry slams, put on the premiere of our show ‘Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists’ in Wolverhampton, and set up an entirely new – and very successful – poetry and spoken word night in Walsall. We still like each other’s poetry, and we still have time to meet down the pub and take the mick out of each other.
edinburgh jpgFor our next venture, we’re taking the PPP show up to the Free Fringe in Edinburgh. Why not? It’ll be an adventure. We’re doing a cut-down version of the Wolverhampton show, so it fits into the 50-minute slot we’ve been given, and from August 5th to 11th we’ll be performing at BarBados on Cowgate each and every evening at 7.30pm. Like all the Free Fringe events, it’ll be free entry, and we’ll be passing the hat round at the end of each show to help keep the wolf from the door.
Courtesy of the very talented photographer, Matt Timbers, we’ve a fantastic image to promote our show – you’ll see a small version of it to the left of this sentence. If you’d like a copy for yourself, or to share with friends who live in Edinburgh, or who might be visiting the city in August, drop me a line at steve@stevepottinger.co.uk  Maybe we’ll see you there for a pint, too.
P.S. You can read more about when we first performed the show in Wolverhampton by clicking here.

books

In 2012, my book ‘Island Songs was published. It had been a good while since I’d dipped my toes into the world of performance poetry, and I ordered way more books than I was ever likely to sell. Ah well, nothing to do but roll up my sleeves, get out there gigging, and hope to find people who’d want them.
This last Monday – just before the evening rush hour – I hopped on the motorbike and rode out along motorways and A-roads for a gig in Welshpool. There, in the interval of a poetry event in the back room of a pub, I sold the last ever copy of ‘Island Songs’. It had come as something of a surprise when, a few weeks earlier, I’d found I had just ten copies left, and I decided that all the money from those last copies would go to a worthy cause, the charity Shelter, who do so much to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
My thanks to every single person who’s bought and enjoyed ‘Island Songs’ (there’s more of you than I would ever have dared to imagine). Two years ago I followed it up with ‘more bees bigger bonnets’ and this seems as good an opportunity as any to announce there’ll be a new book – my fifth – in the autumn. If you organise poetry events and are looking for a feature poet (or you know someone who does) or you’d simply like me to come to your town and read to you and your friends, get in touch.
I know not every gig will involve sitting outside a pub in the sunshine watching swifts and swallows and jackdaws, but I’ve a motorbike and a strong urge to travel, so let’s make it happen.
(This morning, Ignite Books made a donation of £40.00 to Shelter. If you want to support their work, you can do so here)

it’s a wrap

It’s a worrying moment. You’ve just about made it to the end of your poem, and you know you’ve nailed it. Tone of voice? Bang on. Body language? Perfect. You’ve even remembered all the words, and got them in the right order. You start the last line – and someone sends the cameraman a text.
He hasn’t got his phone on silent, which means the audio track picks up the ‘ping’ as the text arrives. On the one hand, this is hilarious – if you’d started the poem two seconds earlier, or whoever sent the text had pressed ‘send’ a fraction later, you’d have a perfect take in the bag – but behind the laughter there’s a nagging sense of doubt. What if that was the take for the day? What if you spend the next couple of hours stumbling over the words, forgetting your lines, and being interrupted by traffic and street noise from outside?
The pressure is on. Fortunately, the next take is fine (the cameraman has put his phone on silent, thankfully). You do another one – just for luck – and that runs without a hitch, too. Job done. As the cameraman packs his gear away, you laugh about the timing of that text, how it could have thrown the whole day into a spin. By evening, he’s sent the video over. A little later, you post it up online.
A new poem. A new, strong, stable poem. You hope it’ll make people smile.
(if you want to, you can view it here)

island of hope

Five years ago, when I first dipped my toes back into the world of performance poetry, I put together a volume of poems – some old, some new – called Island Songs. They went on sale via the Ignite Books website, and I took copies with me whenever I did a gig. Since then, I’ve also published more bees bigger bonnets which I’m immensely proud of, but Island Songs has continued to slip away into people’s pockets, copy by copy, to a point where I’m now down to the last ten copies.
It’s great to make some money out of my words, but life’s about more than that. I got caught – pleasantly – by surprise by how few copies of Island Songs are left, and it set me thinking. I decided that all of the sale price of each of those last ten copies is going to go to charity. Specifically to Shelter, who do so much to work with people who are homeless, or facing homelessness. If you’d like to buy one of those copies – and it won’t be getting re-printed, so it’s now or never –  then you can be sure all of the money is going to do something good.
If you want to, you can buy Island Songs here.
And you can find out more about Shelter here.

pandemonialists

Almost a year ago to the day, I sat down in a pub with poets Dave Pitt and Emma Purshouse and – over the course of a few pints – the three of us decided working together might be a lot of fun. We didn’t really know what it was we wanted to do (and for a while it looked as if it would mainly involve keeping our favourite Wolverhampton pubs healthily solvent) but we knew something would turn up.
And it did.
Last night, at the Arena Theatre in Wolves, we gave our first ever performance of ‘poets, prattlers, and pandemonialists’. It’s something we’ve poured our hearts and souls into, which we’ve drafted and edited and re-drafted and grafted at, and which has been a hell of a lot of fun to chisel into shape. But you don’t ever know if you’ve really created something that works till you put it in front of an audience, and last night – for the first time – we did.
Wow. It worked. Over one hundred people came along to watch it, and the feedback we got – both in applause and laughter at the time, and in texts, emails, and social media posts since – has been gobsmackingly positive. If I’m honest, it’s all slightly surreal and I’m still trying to get my head round it. I don’t know what more to say, other than to say thanks to everyone who helped us along the way. The Arena Theatre for finding us a date in their calendar, and giving us space to perform; poet Mark Niel for generously giving up an afternoon last week to watch what we’d done and offer suggestions as to how we could make it even better; and everyone who came along last might to clap, laugh, cheer, and tell us how much they loved it. Thank you all.
You’d expect me to blather on about how good the show was, I guess. So I’ll leave you with someone else’s take on the show. Reviews – especially from people who watch a lot of live performance – don’t come much better than this:
“Tonight I have seen something extraordinary. A night of poetry which was fiercely engaging, infinitely accessible, loud, proud and bold about where it came from, but most importantly framed in a manner which gave space for the work to shine but kept the audience on the edge of their seats throughout; this wasn’t just poetry, it was storytelling, and most importantly it was theatre. Glorious theatre. Dave, Steve, and Emma, you guys rock. Thank you for being awesome.”
From one happy, tired, and gobsmacked poet: thanks.

prattling on

Poetry, it has to be said, is a bit of a solo pursuit. Most of the time, you write and edit and practise alone. You share a stage with other poets, but you don’t often get to collaborate with them.
Right now, that’s all changed. For the past couple of months I’ve been working with poets Dave Pitt and Emma Purshouse on a three-handed play, all about what happens when three poets meet up in a pub to put on a show. How did we come up with that idea? Easy. The three of us met in a pub (more than once) had a few drinks (as you do), took the mick out of each other (repeatedly), and somewhere in the ensuing mayhem and pandemonium, the show took shape.
‘poets, prattlers, and pandemonialists’ has been a huge amount of fun to be involved with. It’s also been challenging, and demanding, and bloody hard work. It’s eaten up evening after evening in rehearsals as we improve, re-write, improvise, edit, add to, and change the script. And I’ve loved every minute.
Now we’re just ten days away from show time. April 21st, in the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. It’s going to be theatre, and it’s going to be poetry and it’s going to be more banter than you can shake a stick at. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s going to be ace.
It’s also going to be the only performance of ‘poets, prattlers, and pandemonialists’ before we take it up north for a week’s run at a large arts festival in a certain scottish city. We think we should probably mention that. It’s quite exciting. Come and see what we’re making this song and dance about!
Ahem. If you haven’t got them already, you can buy your tickets here (or click on any of the highlighted text). Thanks.

still more bees

Two years ago, I got to see the first copies of my book ‘more bees bigger bonnets’. Two days ago, a van courier delivered the latest print run. The third one. My thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy of ‘more bees…’ and enjoyed it, to all the poetry nights that have given me a gig, and the festivals who’ve put me on the bill. Books don’t sell themselves – there’s a lot of hard graft involved – but I’ve loved sharing my words with people. Every train journey, every drive home in the rain, every new audience has been a joy. 


I’m a lucky man. I know it. Over the next few months I’ll be out and about, getting up behind a microphone wherever people will have me (next week, that’s Guildford; after that, it’s Wigan) sharing my words and listening to the words of others. Making connections and revelling in it, having a chat over a coffee or a pint. It’s a good life.
You can – of course – buy my books at my gigs. Alternatively, they’re on sale here, and to celebrate the third print run of ‘more bees…’ there’s currently a special offer. It ends this Sunday, so – if you don’t want to miss out – get your skates on, eh?

buzzing about

Everyone needs something in their life they’re passionate about. I don’t suppose it matters too much what it is – whether it’s football or painting or fishing or dancing – just as long as it’s there, as long as you’ve that special something to give focus to your life and brighten up your days.
For me (and there’s no surprise here) it’s poetry. Which is to say, the sense of communication that comes with and through poetry. I get an absolute buzz out of meeting people and having a blather which is every bit as important as the act of getting up behind the mic and sharing my words. That’s usually why I’m there in the first place, but listening to and savouring all the different interpretations of the world and takes on life which I get to hear while I’m at a gig, well, that’s the icing on a particularly tasty cake.
So a huge thanks to all those people in London and StAnza, and Ludlow, and Galway who’ve shared their take on the world from behind the mic or over the top of a pint or two. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to hear you. I hope you found something in my words that you enjoyed in turn.
If any of you are still wondering exactly what it is I do, you can get an idea from this review of StAnza festival. It’s all worth reading (you should definitely listen to Kevin McLean) and – when you get to it – you’ll see why I’m so chuffed about it.
I’ll treasure that while I get on with the rehearsals for Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists. It’s going to be something really special, and I’ll be jabbering on about that very soon.
whispers: but if you can’t wait, you can get tickets for the premiere here.

long march

It’s gone five thirty in the evening as I write this, and it’s still light outside. Spring is coming, and it seems only right for me to celebrate these ever longer days by getting out and about. So I am.

This weekend, I’m going to be at the StAnza international poetry festival in St Andrews, for what is only my second ever gig in Scotland. If you’re in the area and fancy coming along, or have friends in the area and fancy badgering them about this feast of poetry, the details are here.

I hotfoot it back down south in time to read at The Poetry Lounge in Ludlow on March 7th, and then I’m having another bash at reading in Galway. Last time I tried to do this – in early February – my plans were well and truly scuppered by a missing ferry, so I spent a couple of hours in Holyhead port and went home. I like to think the ship in question was still up on a ramp with a bloke in overalls looking at it, shaking his head, and muttering something about the ball joint being knackered and the big end past its best and it’s how long since you last checked the oil?

Anyway, I’m assured the ferry has passed its MOT and got a new set of tyres, and is now happily chugging back and forth between Holyhead and Dublin, and I got a refund on my February ticket, so there’s every chance I will manage to get to Galway in time to join a host of wordsmiths at The Museum in the Spanish Arch on March 10th.

Pop by and say hi. Or stare at the empty space where I should have been and know that the ferry is parked up on the hard shoulder with its hazards on and steam billowing from under the bonnet, and I’m wailing and gnashing in Holyhead once more.

hairstyle, and mop

Sitting down to write this blog, I realise I’m starting 2017 on a bit of a roll. It’s a while since I’ve been on a bit of a roll, and I’m remembering how much I like it. I’m currently high on enthusiasm, stuffed to bursting with dreams. Given that the sun has shone on the West Midlands for precisely no hours whatsoever in the past week – thanks, weather gods – that’s nothing short of incredible, but to date this burst of creativity has survived the murk and gloom. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess.
To date, I’ve let the punk in Walsall exhibition loose on Birmingham, which I’m really proud of. You’ll find it in the Parkside Gallery at Birmingham City Uni for the next three weeks. Entry is free, and if you want a copy of the free newspaper that goes with the exhibition, you can pick one of those up too.
I’ve finished drafting a play I’ve been working on with two other poets – watch out for more about that later in the year – and discovered how joyous it can be to spend a week on holiday (it claimed to be a writing retreat, but I wasn’t fooled) in North Wales in early January. I’ve even been inspired to get back to working on the book I laid to one side when 2016 got shitty.
And yesterday, I fulfilled a life-long ambition by spending the morning in the toilets in Walsall Art Gallery with Reuben from Trapeze Films and a mop. We were putting together a video for one of my poems, rushed out to celebrate – no, that’s not the right word – rushed out to commemorate… no, that won’t do either…. rushed out to mark, yes, to mark the occasion of the most embarrassing car-crash of a toe-curling disaster of a party in Washington DC tomorrow, after which the term damp squib may well need to be redefined.
If you enjoy subtle, sophisticated poetry, it’s fair to say this offering may not be for you. It was filmed in a toilets, after all. If a broadside aimed at our new unclothed emperor is more your bag, you may be in luck. Decide for yourself. You can watch it here.
If it makes you chuckle, please share it with your friends. And now I’m back off to mine that burst of creativity for everything it’s got. See ya later.


post-punk

Last weekend, I learned that putting on an exhibition is a lot of work. A lot of work. It’s also a huge amount of fun.
The work comes first. More of it than you’d imagined there would be. Emails, meetings, interviews, hours of editing, more hours of formatting, days locating a venue to show it. Then negotiations, spreadsheets, endless administration. Amendments. Appointments. The all-important press release. Then the song and dance on social media. On and on and on.*
By the time we’d got it all set up, I’d spent so long working on the exhibition that I no longer had any idea whether it was good, bad, brilliant, dull, or misguided. I couldn’t tell whether people would walk in and love what they saw, or go Is that it? and walk back out again.
Finally, we opened. Well, I told myself, it’s a Saturday morning in Walsall. No-one will turn up for an hour or two. I’ll have time to catch my breath. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gallery opened at 10am. At 10.01, the first person came in. Then another. And another. Punks came in with their parents, parents came in without their punks. They looked at the images, they read the text, they stayed and chatted. Punks everyone had talked about, punks I hadn’t been able to find, walked in, introduced themselves, and told me hilarious and outrageous stories from back in the day. (Can you fit a stolen beer keg into a motorbike sidecar? Yes, you can. Can you ride through Walsall with a mate sitting astride it, take it to someone’s house, and break your way in with a chisel and a hammer? Absolutely. Can you drink all the 56 pints of beer? Not a problem. And does it still make you laugh when you talk about it all these years on? Of course it does.)
Old friends met up for the first time in years. On the Saturday afternoon, local band Not Quite Dead Yet filled the art gallery foyer with the noise of ukulele covers of punk classics. Gallery staff clapped along, something which still makes me smile. Copies of our free newspaper were snapped up in dozens. By the time we shut the doors at the end of Sunday, I was happy, exhausted, and beaming. It had all gone well.
So well, in fact, that we’ll be doing it all again early next year. There’ll be more news about that soon after Xmas.
I can’t wait.
*I didn’t do it all on my own, of course. The wonderful images were taken by Sophie Pitchford, and I’m profoundly grateful to Creative Factory (and Deb Slade in particular) for guiding me through the funding application and all their help along the way.


punk

This website has always been the place where I post about my poetry, my gigs, and my writing. But this blog is about something I’ve put together which is a little bit different….
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that 2016 is the 40th anniversary of punk. There have been exhibitions in London, articles in newspaper and radio, and on TV, and Malcolm McLaren’s son has shown how truly devoid of ideas he is by making a song and dance of burning punk memorabilia (yawn, mate, it’s been done before).
I’ve always felt that the most interesting thing about punk is the impact it had on people in towns up and down the country. So, in between writing poems and doing gigs, I’ve spent a lot of the year working on putting together an exhibition about punks from my hometown, Walsall. It’s been a lot of work, and a lot of fun, and it’s showing at the New Art Gallery in Walsall over the weekend of 3rd and 4th December.
If you’re in the area, I’d love you to come along. You’ll find images and interviews. You can read punks from Walsall saying – in their own words – what punk meant and means to them. Come along on the Saturday afternoon, and you can listen to classic punk songs played on ukuleles. What more could you possibly want? OK, how about a free newspaper you can take home with you, packed with all the pictures and words? We’ve got that, too.
It’s going to be fantastic. Drop by, it’ll be good to see you! Oh, and if you do these things, we’ve a Twitter account @walsallpunx40 where we’ll be posting all our news.

in memoriam

When my grandfather moved down from Scotland to the Midlands in the ’30s, he was one of the only GPs who would offer treatment to the gypsies and travellers who still passed through the area, camping on pit bonk or unclaimed land. As far as he was concerned, travellers had as much of a right to health as the next man. The first rule of medicine was that everyone should be treated the same. Unsurprisingly, word of this soon travelled. Gypsies needing a doctor would come from miles around, draw up their horse-drawn caravans along the street outside his house, and wait to see him.
By the time my father joined the practice in the ’60s, the horse-drawn caravans were gone. Some of the gypsies were settled in council sites, and those still on the move would park up on the little open land that remained in their vans and trucks and caravans, their lifestyle less and less welcome in an increasingly built-up world. They knew of the doctor who would come to visit their sick children, even if they didn’t know who he was, and they kept his number on slips of paper, and found a pay phone whenever the need arose.
I knew all this, of course. When my mom died, and I learned how quickly the tales you promised yourself you’d listen to one day became locked-up secrets no-one could ever tell, I made a point of spending time sitting with my dad and asking him about his life. I’d listen to what he told me, commit it to memory, and write it up on my computer.
What I didn’t know, till this week, was that the gypsies and the travellers would pay my father, press notes into his hand just as they’d done with his father before him. It didn’t matter that he explained there was a National Health Service now, that he was already being paid for visiting them and treating them, and they didn’t need to do this. Their code of honour meant they wouldn’t take treatment for free. My father’s code of honour meant he wouldn’t keep the money, so – although he wasn’t a religious man – on his way home he would pop into the church where my mother went to mass, and stuff the money into the box for collections for the poor.
Some things you only learn when the person is gone. I’d thought I couldn’t be any more proud of my dad and what he did. It turns out I was wrong.
I can.


anthologies

Every poet has quiet times. Or do they? I don’t know. I do, I’m sure of that. Times where life is so busy I can’t find time to collect my thoughts, or the news so depressing I can’t find the strength. Times where your conviction in your ability takes a bit of a kicking and you wonder if you’ll ever pick up a pen in anger again. You tell yourself this will pass, but a small voice whispers that you’re kidding yourself when you do.
It’s been a bit like that recently. So this week – when I’ve had poems published in two very different anthologies – is a much-needed shot in the arm. First, my poem Stabberjocky was included in the collection ‘Poems for Jeremy Corbyn’. Published by Shoestring Press, and with a fairly obvious theme, it’s on sale here and has poems from fifty poets. Twelve of us will be reading at the launch night on October 14th in Housman’s Bookshop in London. Entry is free, and there’ll be a collection for the Ritzy Cinema strike fund. Come along. And if you can’t come along, please spread the word.
Then, this morning, my copy of Half Moon dropped onto the doormat. An anthology of poems about pubs, published by Otley Word Feast Press. One of my poems appears there, and on the accompanying beermats. I’ve never had a poem on a beermat before. I quite like it, just as I quite like the idea that someone may be having a pint in a pub and end up reading my poem. After all, poetry belongs in pubs as much as it does on the page.
Two anthologies in a week. Am I blowing my own trumpet? Yes, a little. But – mainly – I’m writing this blog to remind myself of one thing I’d begun to wonder if I’d forgotten. That every poet has quiet times, but they pass.
They pass.


 

evidently

It’s great being a poet. But without the hard work of people who organise and put on poetry and spoken word nights, and who put in all the hours of graft to make sure they get bums on seats, we’ve nowhere to perform, and no audience to perform to.
The best ones make it look easy, even effortless. And Evidently, in the Eagle Inn in the bustling metropolis of the city of Salford (just north of the unremarkable village of Manchester) does it better than most.
Hats off to Kieren King and Ella Gainsborough and their team. They’ve woven together something magical. The Eagle is a great little venue, there’s a wonderful atmosphere, quality headline acts, and – from what I saw and heard last night – some excellent poets stepping up to take part in the open-mic. It’s their third birthday next month, and if you’re in the area, you should make a point of getting along.
You won’t regret it.


stuff and nonsense

As I take five minutes to scribble this blog down and piece something coherent together, it looks as though a piece of my work is going viral. For the second time.
Last time round, it was the letter to Caffè Nero, written when I discovered that they were making millions in profit while paying next to nothing in corporate tax. You can read about that here if you want to know more about what happened.
This time, two years on, it’s a poem.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched the Westminster soap-opera – the endless labyrinthine machinations and skulduggery and resignations and recriminations – with a sense of increasing disbelief. I wanted to say something about it. But how on earth do you find a way to write a poem about the car-crash of betrayal and ambition in which some of our representatives seem to specialise??
Lewis Carroll provided the answer. 150 years ago he wrote a wonderful nonsense poem, which included the words ‘slithy toves’ in the first line. What a gift for a 21st century poet on a small furious island on the edge of Europe. If ever we needed Jabberwocky, if ever it had something pertinent to say about the nonsense politics of Westminster village, the time is now, I thought. So last weekend I sat down with a pad, a pen, and an overheated imagination, and had a stab at re-writing it. ‘toves’ became ‘Gove’ and Stabberjocky was the result. Seeing as it’s currently been shared nearly 1000 times on social media, it would seem that it struck a chord with others, too.
You can read Stabberjocky on this website, here. And on Facebook, here.
If you enjoy it, and you want to share it with your friends, please do. The genius in this work is Carroll’s. Weak points are mine alone.


whizz bang

There’s always a risk for poets in writing about current affairs. All too quickly, today’s burning issue becomes tomorrow’s chip paper, and all that hard work you put into knocking rhythm and rhyme together counts for nothing. And who wants that?
But there’s always been a role for broadside balladeering, and sometimes – when there’s an issue which has a direct impact on people but seems terminally dull when you try to explain it – a poem can make a point, and get read, where a column in a broadsheet can’t. It’s not an either/or. Both have their place. Yes, we need sober and detailed analysis, but why not engage people emotionally and make them laugh, too? Corporate tax avoidance gets my goat, but it was only when I managed to write a poem about it – no-one likes an angry poet imagined me visiting a tax-dodging coffee shop chain – that I found a way to articulate my anger, and that of others.
Currently, the BBC seem to be choosing to ignore a massive political story: Tory general election fraud in marginal constituencies. You can read the facts about that story here. You won’t hear much about it on the BBC, however, so I wrote this poem – shell-like – to try and bring the issue home.
If it ends up wrapping tomorrow’s cyber-chips, so be it. It was a lot of fun to do. And you should never discount the importance of fun.


unclothing the emperor

There are always people out there who make a life and a career out of winding up liberals, portraying themselves as daring renegades who dare to stand up against the tyranny of political correctness. They say something callous about the story of the moment – calling drowning migrants cockroaches, for example – and then sit back and revel in their notoriety as the storm of condemnation grows.  
It’s a simple formula, and no less effective for that. Ignore them, and they go unchallenged; respond, and you’ve given them the attention that they crave, you’ve swallowed the clickbait. The game has been carefully rigged, and – whichever response you choose – it seems they win, you lose.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock – and it’s a valid lifestyle choice, if that’s what tickles your fancy, and may be all any of us can afford before too long –  you’ll know that the most striking example of this is playing itself out in North America, where Donald J Trump is making the running in the race to be Republican candidate for president of the USA.
Is the idea that a billionaire businessman can claim to be an outsider utterly laughable? Yes. Is he playing the tired old card of blaming all life’s problems on immigrants and minorities? Yes. Does it seem to be working? Quite probably. I don’t know about you, but in the face of all that I need a bit of a shot in the arm, a little morale-booster, a flight of fancy which imagines a better world, and cuts bullies and renegades back down to size.*
So I did what I do, and wrote a poem. Then I made a video of it. You can watch that video here. Watch it once. Watch it as often as you like. Share it with strangers, share it with friends. In the politics of the playground (which is what we seem to have right now) a little mockery can go a long, long way.
*No, I don’t for a moment believe a little poem written by a gobby bloke in the West Mids will derail the Trump bandwagon. But I do believe in the subversiveness of laughter. And right now, that’ll do.


crazy

We live in a crazy world. Doubt it? Here’s an example.
This weekend the news has been full of stories from the ‘snowmageddon’ on the east coast of the USA (because just calling it ‘very heavy snowfall’ isn’t anything like as exciting, right?). Two feet of snow falling in just a few hours, closing airports and freeways and causing state governors to declare a state of emergency while making one Washington panda very very happy. You can see how much I’ve picked up, and I wasn’t particularly paying attention…
A couple of hours in, and the rolling news was – naturally – looking for a fresh angle on the story, some new titbit for the viewers at home to savour from the comfort of their living rooms. So they found a woman in Baltimore who works with homeless people, and asked her how her charity was coping with this extreme weather – I don’t think any of us were surprised to learn it added to their workload, but this wasn’t meant to be cutting-edge investigative journalism, it was just five minutes of filler on TV. And at some point the charity worker was asked how many people her charity helped. 2,600 she replied. There were families, there were old people, there were kids. 2,600 of them. And the conversation moved on.
But let’s just rewind a minute, forget about the snow, and look at what wasn’t considered worthy of headlines. What didn’t even raise a flicker of concern. Which is that every day, in just one city in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, there are 2,600 homeless people reliant on charity just to get by. Come rain, come shine, come two feet of snow. Families, old people, kids. With nowhere to live, and in need of soup kitchens and shelters to make it from one day to the next, in a society awash with money, which positively worships wealth.
There’s something profoundly wrong with this picture. But then it’s a crazy world.
Imagine a world which wasn’t.
Imagine a world where a person of wealth and substance, a modern-day Croesus, a – for the sake of argument, let’s say a Donald Trump – halted his campaign for power and glory, and his gospel of hatred and fear, and declared he’d thought about those homeless people, and how just a fraction of his $4.5billion fortune could help them.* Imagine a world where it occurred to him that this might be a noble and worthwhile use of his money, one which would – arguably – provide him with a greater legacy than building yet another exclusive golf course no-one will ever see. Imagine a world where he got up behind the podium at one of his rallies and announced to his supporters he was going to use his wealth to help the poorest in his country…. Go on, give it a go.
Not easy, is it? Now tell me it isn’t a crazy world.
* If Trump did this, even I might be tempted to vote for him. Although, in honesty, it’s not that likely.

And he’d still have to do something about the hair.

 


the importance of art

It’s become increasingly fashionable to sneer at art. Philistines on the right dismiss it as not being a proper job, while their counterparts on the left say how it fails to liberate the masses, and virtually all of us roll our eyes when we’re faced with art which wraps itself in impenetrable terminology – blah blah juxtaposition blah deconstructing blah prevailing orthodoxy blah blah blah – and still leaves you wanting to poke your own eyes out with a fork. But the truth is that art does matter to people. Or rather, art which speaks to us, helps us make sense of our lives, and allows us to feel part of something bigger than our individual selves, matters to us. If you ever doubt that, you simply need to take the most cursory of glances at the outpouring of grief this month to the deaths of two very different musicians.
The reaction to their deaths shows the importance of art in our lives.
Even if Motörhead meant nothing to you, you’ll know someone for whom their music was the soundtrack to their life, and for whom Lemmy was a hero. Even if you haven’t a single Bowie track in your music collection, you’ll like as not have friends for whom his dress sense, his songwriting, and his sexual ambiguity showed them there was a world which existed outside the narrow confines of the norm. In their own ways, each of them blazed a trail, and you’d need to have a heart of stone not to be moved when you read how much they meant to so many people. The music they created changed people’s lives, and whether you wanted a place for your energy and anger, your sense of difference, your joy of dressing-up, or just some bloody good tunes to get drunk and dance to, you got it. This was art being important, and art being unpretentious. It was art being part of everyday life. It was art mattering.
This isn’t some fuzzy it’s-all-coming-up-roses world view, either. It’s entirely possible to believe in the necessity of art and still be cynical about the attempts of politicians to garner credibility by making sure they clamber on board the bandwagon of grief. And to recognise that for the part of the world’s population which worries about getting enough to eat, or making it through the day without being killed, a discussion about the role of art in our lives is hardly a priority. But art, and human creativity, gives us the tools to help map a route through our existence, and without it our world would be a colder, darker place.
Make time in your life – today, tomorrow, whenever you can – to find the songs which put a smile on your face or a lump in your throat, the books which transport you away from everyday drudgery, the paintings and photos which open up new vistas, and the sculptures which fill you with wonder. And treasure them.
Treasure them always.


taste of honey

The ghost of the Xmas turkey* is already dead and gone, and the horror of the New Year hangover is still just a twinkle in an ill-judged cocktail’s eye, so what better time to let my fingers do the walking and type out one last blog for the year?
It’s been an eventful twelve months. In Spring, my book more bees bigger bonnets was published. It got some great reviews then – Joelle Taylor called it a tower block of a book, Boff Whalley said it was shot through with unforgettable stories – and it ended the year being chosen by economist Richard Murphy as one of his two books of the year. Here’s the link.
My thanks and best wishes go out to all those poets I’ve shared a stage with this year, and to the organisers of poetry and spoken word nights – and promoters of festivals – who’ve given me a chance to put my work in front of a new audience, or bring it back to an audience who’ve heard my work before. Thanks, above all, to everyone who’s come along to my gigs, bought my books, and supported my work. The power of poetry is its potential to build connections, to put into words the things we sometimes struggle to find the words to say, to use the rhythm and musicality of language so our hopes and dreams can sing. If what I’ve written has in any way helped toward that, I’m a happy man.
My hopes for 2016? Global justice, wealth re-distribution, and Moseley taking the rugby world by storm. Or any two of the three. Failing that, a collective shot at getting our heads round the fact that judging people on the basis of their religion, nationality, or skin colour is never a good idea and doesn’t end well. And if that’s too much to ask for, then some decent music, a couple of good beers, and cheering Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, and Anjem Choudary on their way as the rocket leaves for Mars.
Whatever happens, I intend to be out there gigging. Richard Murphy said my work builds hope and that’ll do for me. If you want me to come to where you live, drop me a line. If I’m coming to your town already, pop by and say Hi. I wish you all the best for 2016. May it be filled with love and laughter and dreaming.
*no turkeys, geese, or nut roasts were harmed in the making of this blog


swarms

Many years ago, back when life was stretching out before me like an endless adventure, I hitched back down from Leeds to Walsall for a party. My best friend in the world was turning eighteen, and her mom and stepdad had hired the function room in a pub, and on top of that they’d ordered a buffet. There were crisps, sandwiches, and chunks of pineapple and cheese on cocktail sticks. There was even hot food. And – seeing as they were pushing the boat out for the evening – there was a cover band, too.
I was pretty certain the younger ones amongst us would have been happier in the bar in t-shirts and ripped jeans, drinking pints and to hell with good behaviour, but this was an evening as much for my friend’s mom and stepdad and her aunts and uncles as it was for us. The cover band stood on the low stage in the corner of the room wearing frilly purple shirts and black slacks, and played barely adequate versions of old rock’n’roll numbers while we sniggered and ignored them.
Then the music stopped, and the singer – all comb-over and Black Country accent – started telling jokes. Irish ‘jokes’. Irish ‘jokes’ where thick Paddy did this, or stupid Paddy did the other. Maybe he thought this added to the sophistication of the evening, I don’t know. But my mom was Irish, and what I heard were the same sad, tired, offensive ‘jokes’ I’d heard all my life, told in the same breath as jokes about ‘pakis‘ and ‘niggers’ and ‘wogs’. The language of bigotry and ignorance which had always made my blood boil, and which always will.
Sitting in that function room, my blood boiled once again. But I knew I couldn’t spoil my friend’s big night by causing a scene, so I sat on my hands and bit my tongue, and told myself to let it lie. Then I heard a lad at the next table mutter and curse under his breath. Something wrong? I asked him. Oh yes, he said, was there ever something wrong. While the singer droned on in the background the two of us chatted about our shared experience of growing up Irish, about identity and discrimination, and how – tonight, especially tonight – we’d really had it up to here with the stupid Irish jokes. By the time the singer announced he was taking a break for ten minutes and the band would be back with more music soon, we knew exactly what we were going to do.
We cornered him on his way to the toilet, and asked if we could have a word. I think he expected praise, a slap on the back and the offer of a pint, and his face froze in shock when we told him his jokes weren’t funny, and his patter sucked. Then came the bluster. It was all just a laugh, wasn’t it? We were taking it way too seriously, weren’t we? We needed to lighten up a bit, and have a pint and a giggle. They were only jokes. Calmly and patiently, we pointed to our history, explained about the discrimination our parents had faced, reminded him how recent it was the signs read No Irish, No Blacks, And No Dogs, but in truth we might as well have been talking to the wall.
He simply couldn’t understand what was happening. Two lads from the Black Country were taking him to task, and he just couldn’t get his head round it at all. We looked and sounded for all the world like we were part of his target audience, one which he assumed would join in laughing and pointing the finger at the immigrant, the foreigner, or the stupid Paddy, and here we were having a go at him. In his world, it just didn’t make sense. But when he went back on stage that night he didn’t tell any more jokes.
Since then, the years have slipped away, one after another, but some things haven’t changed. My friend is still as beautiful and wonderful as ever, and still my best friend. Life is still an adventure. And people still use the language of hate and expect me to fall in line and sing along. But I won’t hate migrants or Muslims or refugees, and politicians who talk of swarms and hordes and threats to our way of life should remember that they have as little credibility as a pot-bellied bloke wearing slacks and singing someone else’s songs in the back room of a pub thirty years ago.
And only Jimi Hendrix ever looked good in a frilly purple shirt.


resistance

Summer. In the UK. Now the cynics amongst you might argue this just gives us more hours of daylight to watch the rain fall, but this year even the most hard-bitten of you would have to admit it’s also offering us more hours of daylight to watch our government set about dismantling the welfare state, appeal to the basest elements of human motivation, and drive us further still to being a pale wet imitation of the USA.
Not the best of times for those of us who think that’s wrong, muddle-headed, and driven more by ideology and greed than anything else.
Which is why it becomes more important than ever to celebrate and champion the good things people do, the alternative narratives, the resistance to this headlong plunge to a new feudalism. Because there’s more going on than you might think.
If you’re thinking to yourself ‘This is all well and good, Steve, but it’s got precious little to do with poetry…’ then you’ve got a point. I hold my hands up on that one. But equally, if you’ve read any of my poetry – and I’m guessing you have, since you’re reading this blog – you’ll know that politics is part of the warp and weft of what I write, so me getting on my soapbox about what’s going on is hardly a surprise. And sometimes I need a break from pushing and promoting my poetry just as much as you do.
So this newsletter is to celebrate the good stuff. The people who put in long hours and hard work to bring art and music to their communities. Volunteers running foodbanks. The work of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. This speech by Mhairi Black. There’s more, of course. Much more. But this is just off the top of my head at nine in the morning when I’m trying to get this finished and posted before I leave the house. (you can always add your own in the ‘comments’ to this blog – I’d love to hear them)
I remain optimistic. I look at people and their capacity for compassion and solidarity and I continue to see hope. This August you’ll find me clambering onto a stage at Green Gathering, Beautiful Days, and Shambala to share that. To take the piss out of the status quo. To remind us we know how we can do better. Come and say ‘Hi’. Let’s share our stories of the good things that are going on, the resistance that is happening, and our plans for where we go from here.
And bring your wellies. It’s summer in the UK, after all.


stars

The poetry world runs on the goodwill, the endeavour, the graft and the enthusiasm of people who organise, publicise, and put on gigs knowing full well that – in pure economic terms – anyone looking at the work they put in for whatever money they may make, would have to conclude it was the activity of madmen. Or fools.
And yet, without them, a host of poetry gigs would never happen, and the grassroots of the poetry and spoken word scene – without which future stars would have nowhere to cut their performance teeth – would wither and die, leaving all of us that much poorer. Up and down the country there are people putting on poetry nights in bars, clubs, and art centres, playing their part in creating a scene where a million poetry voices can bloom. Doing so purely for the love of it and receiving but a fraction of the credit they deserve.
Which brings me to last Monday, and the Guildford gig.
There are some days when I really don’t feel like doing a poetry gig, and Monday was one. That morning I was a broken man. The weekend had been three long days – eighteen hours on my feet each one of them – with the day job. By Monday, I was bone-tired. Stupid with the kind of exhaustion that meant I stared blankly at people while I tried to work out what they’d just said, without ever feeling sure I’d got it right. I stumbled through London to a friend’s flat, fell into bed, and slept.
Even after a deep day’s dreamless sleep, I wasn’t much better. I made my way to Guildford, watching the world slip dream-like by, and found the venue. All I needed to do, I reminded myself, was dig down into the last of my reserves, do my set, and collapse into a chair like a string-cut puppet.
And then the magic happened.
You see, for me, poetry is all about connection, about a space where you can listen to other people sharing their take on the world – candid, comic, personal, political, profound – and where you can offer up yours in turn. It’s about human beings listening to, and being moved by, and learning from each other as equals, without having to fight their way past some ridiculous hierarchy to do so. (In that respect it’s about as far from much of modern life – and certainly the ya-boo-sucks shouting-down of modern politics – as it’s possible to get. But that’s a subject for another blog.)
The Guildford night had all of this in spades. The other poets arrived, wonderfully free of ego or self-importance. An audience strolled in. The venue was perfect, the sound and lighting just right. And as each performer took the stage, they span the magic of their words and passion. I don’t know that I can remember a night where I’ve sat and watched six different poets, and laughed and applauded and been left with a lump in my throat by the work of each and every one of them. Not every night manages to create that magic blend.
So my thanks to Janice Windle and Donàll Dempsey for all their hard work and dedication in making the Guildford gig happen. Organisers of poetry nights generally don’t get the recognition they deserve, but without people like Janice and Donàll grafting away in towns across the UK, there’d be nowhere for the magic they made possible to find a home. Somewhere over the course of that evening, my exhaustion fell away, and as I made my back to London on the train, sitting and chatting with the other poets, I was buzzing and bright with ideas and inspiration. I still am. Poetry night organisers, you see. They change the world.
Thank you all.


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.

budget

It’s amazing what you can do with next to no money behind you. You get inventive, because you have to. You call in favours. You work with people who get what you’re doing and are happy to give their time and their skills for the friendship, the banter, and the craic, for the satisfaction of helping create something new and vibrant and sending it out in to the world.
Even so, every now and then I find myself dreaming of what it must be like to have a budget to promote my work. In those what-if-I-won-the-lottery moments I dream of buying advertising space for all the artists I know who produce wonderful work without a fraction of the publicity they deserve. I dream of hiring a PR person who’d know the right words to put our work in front of the right people in the right way and at the right time. Above all I fantasise about employing an assistant who’ll book me gigs, keep me supplied with coffee, and answer the phone while I head off exploring somewhere new on the motorbike.
As it is, like so many other artists i could mention, I’m reliant on doing it all myself. On mustering what publicity I can, and placing more responsibility than is wise on social media and the hope that friends will choose to like and share my work. That’s less easy than it was since facebook grew obsessed with monetising everything they can get their hands on. But don’t get me started on that.
This week, I’ve finally uploaded my new video to Youtube. It was filmed – again – by a mate who offers his talents for free. In place of a budget we had oodles of inventiveness and a shedload of determination. We found a council who gave us access to a flat in a tower block due for demolition and didn’t charge us for the privilege. We finally managed to book a date in our diaries when neither of us was away working. We bounced ideas around and watched the project take shape. And then we got on and did it. The total cost for this video was the cost of hiring a camera for the day. And you can see it here. If you want to.
Don’t get me wrong, a budget would be lovely. But even with next to no money behind you, you can still get things done.
Go out and make something amazing.

struggle

All too often, I’m the first to make a joke about it. To quip that being a poet’s an easy life, that it’s largely a matter of lazing about watching the world go by and waiting for inspiration, that it beats doing the 9-5. And in many ways, it does. But the reality of making a living on the fringes of the art world is a million miles away from easy street, and my occasional flippancy about it doesn’t do it justice.
There’s a lot more to it than just getting up behind a microphone to read your work.
Anyone who’s self-employed knows how much graft goes on behind the scenes, and – in that respect – being a poet is no different. Gigs don’t just happen. You have to find out where they are and who to contact, bat emails back and forth, juggle potential dates and try and fit them in with other gigs you’re pitching for, be patient when the people you need to get back to you – who are most probably doing this in their spare time after work – don’t respond as quickly as you’d like and so you lose two or three gigs because you need them all to hang together to make them pay. You have to start from square one again. You learn how hard it is to find small venues which are available on the nights you want, with a room you can work, and a decent PA, and a manager who gets what you and the other people on the bill are trying to do, and doesn’t say No because there’s a third-rate Queen cover band he can put on (again) instead. And once more, you start from square one.
You fit all this round the other stuff in your life. A day spent keeping an old van in working order, sourcing a new battery for the motorbike, walking to the supermarket in the rain. With making sure there’s enough work coming down the line to make ends meet and worrying what you’ll do if there isn’t. You wonder how on earth you’re going to find time and space to sit down and actually write something. You tell yourself it’s all raw material, that all this graft will transmute to inspiration, but sometimes it seems a long time since you sat with someone and spoke with them about their art, or their music, or what’s going on in their life. You make a note. This needs to change.
And you go to bed at night, too tired to sleep, and find yourself wondering about the woman in the cafe down the road, about how she got there, what gave her the laughter lines and the sadness in her eyes. And the homeless guy who sits by the bus stop all day long, watching everything that happens, talking to himself, basking in the sunshine or hunkered in the rain… what’s that about? And you realise you’ll always ask Why? And this compulsion is both a blessing and a curse.
You do it because you have to. You do it for the moments when you stand up before an audience and have them in the palm of your hand, for the times a magazine or a website publishes your work and strangers write in to say how much they enjoyed it. You do it for the joy of putting words together in a new way, for the creation and connection. You do it because it’s as necessary as breathing, because it makes everything worthwhile. Because otherwise you’d only be twiddling your thumbs, bored out of your mind.
And you know it’s the same for all the poets, musicians, artists, sculptors, painters, and writers, the ones you count among your friends and the ones you don’t yet know, that the hard work and the hard yards they put in so often goes unrecognised. You take your hat off to them.
And you hope they keep at it, because in doing so they make the world a better place.

rebellion

I love Blackpool. I really do. Last Thursday I headed up there in the van – just as I did last year – to make my way to Rebellion Festival, which takes over the Winter Gardens for a four day extravaganza of everything to do with punk, and manages to shoehorn a little poetry and spoken word in there too.
It’s a gem of a festival in a joy of a town, and just being there puts a grin on my face. Add to that the opportunity to catch up with old friends, and sup the occasional half a shandy, and life is damn near perfect. And this year – incredibly – turned out to be even better than 2012. I think the literature/poetry stage was a new venture for Rebellion then, and while it was good, there were a few teething troubles. This year, with art from various punk notables displayed round the walls, and the ceiling draped off, the room was warm and inviting, and busy. Above all, the sound was good, which makes life better for everyone, audience and performer alike.
Highlights? Well, joining Ross Lomas of GBH as he was interviewed by John Robb about the autobiography we’ve written together was a bit unexpected, and a lot of fun. I hope we did City Baby justice. Then, of course, there was my set, which gave me the opportunity to give a first run-out to ‘Bongo Bongo bad’, written just 24 hours earlier, published by Poetry24 the same day, and dedicated to the ridiculous Godfrey Bloom MEP. And finally, what better way to round off the evening than with a ringside seat for the set by Justin Sullivan & Dean White of NMA on the Almost Acoustic stage. A performance of passion and power few artists could dream of matching.
At the end of Friday night, happily replete with conversation, music, and beer, I wove my way gently down the seafront on my bike, crawled into the van, and slept the sleep of a very contented man. Thanks to everyone I met, chatted with, and had a pint with. Above all, thanks to Paul the stage-manager for all his work making sure the poetry/literature stage ran smoothly, to everyone who came along and enjoyed my set, and to Rebellion Festival for inviting me along in the first place.
Hopefully I’ll see you all in another twelve months. If not before.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, all the very best till then…

fair to middling

That’d be the traditional way of describing my month. Fair to middling. An archetypal British expression to downplay your excitement at how things are going, draw as little attention to yourself as possible, and do all you can not to invoke the displeasure of the gods and your neighbours who see you getting above yourself.
I don’t think the concept has an American equivalent.
Unless it’s Canada.
Anyway, that’s how my July has been. Fair. To middling. And now – deadpan and offhand as you like, while not making any kind of eye contact, and with the thought of a fanfare of trumpets so far out of the question the trumpeter hasn’t even got out of bed yet – let me explain why.
Yes, the weather’s been great, and that helped. We’ve waited seven years for this sunshine, after all. But on top of that, on July 16th I had one of my poems published by Poetry24. You can find ‘Lesson’, about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, here.
Next day, the copies of City Baby, the autobiography of GBH bassist Ross Lomas which I wrote with him, arrived from the printers. They look absolutely fantastic, and I’m incredibly grateful to both Ross for telling such a great story, and Ignite Books and the printers for doing such a great job of turning that story into a thing of beauty. It’s selling like hot punk rock cakes, apparently, which is no more than it deserves.
The following day, the Morning Star published another of my poems, ‘Keytown’, and the day after that I trundled down to the south coast in the VW camper, and spent the weekend on the Isle of Wight, as festival poet for the very wonderful Rhythmtree festival. Which involved a lot of sunshine, the occasional set, and a fair amount of beer….
And to round things off, this morning (July 25th) Poetry24 chose to publish another of my poems, ‘369 000’. I wrote it because 369 000 babies are born into the world each day, and this week you’d think there was just the one. You’ll find that one here (and on my website soon) and it seems as good a way as any to bring July’s offerings to a close.
Like I say, it’s not been a bad month. Fair to middling. Can’t grumble, if I say so myself.
Hope that’s ok. With you and the gods.

foreign country

The poor are a foreign country.
It’s a comforting thought. Or at least, I guess it must be, because the Iain Duncan Smiths and the Richard Littlejohns and the Melanie Phillips of this world spend a lot of time banging on about how the poor are not like us and I imagine this must bring them some kind of pleasure. In their dystopian world the poor are lazy, stupid, drunken oafs who think the world owes them a living. They spend all their money on fast food and all their time watching TV. They’re either career criminals or they’re living off the generosity of the state, and whichever it is, they’re robbing you blind, you big sap. They’re skivers not strivers. The poor are not like us. Got that?
If this caricature were true, there’d be no need to repeat it, because we’d know it anyway. But it isn’t, so they do, because we haven’t quite learned to believe it yet. And it’s important that we believe it. It’s important that we forget to remember the old adage about There but for the grace… and learn to believe instead that the poor are poor because they’re not like us, and that they’re undeserving.
See, the undeserving poor – who are always unemployed, always scroungers, always drunks or addicts or wife-beaters – aren’t real people. They’re not like you, or me. They never have hopes, never have fears, never have illnesses or disabilities, they never go looking for jobs that don’t exist, and they absolutely never ever ever work all day in a job they hate, where they can be sacked in an instant, and where they pay the rent and the bills and look at what they have left and wonder how it’s going to get them through the week. Never.
The poor live on the far side of an invisible line you can never cross, in a foreign country you can never go to. That’s the lie which Iain and Richard and Melanie would have you believe. And maybe you think this is just a little lie, and it doesn’t really matter, but it does. Because once you accept the lie that honesty and graft and diligence and integrity and application are qualities you have and the poor don’t, once you believe that you are forever on one side of the line and they’re on the other, once you fall for the gross untruth that you’re a fully rounded human being and the poor – by implication – are something less, then all of us lose.
From there it’s a short step to benefit cuts and welfare-to-work. Iain and Richard and Melanie know that. It’s what they have in mind. But when you caricature and demonise the poor, and convince yourself they really aren’t the same as you, that they’re venal and criminal and up to no good, then somewhere down the line you get a George Zimmerman who believes the assholes always get away and decides to do something about it. And you get a Trayvon Martin too.
And, too late, you learn the poor aren’t a foreign country at all.


city baby

At last, it’s done.
The autobiography I’ve been working on for the past couple of years was handed over to the printers just before the end of June. You might think that after all that time there’d be no need for a last-minute panic in order to meet a (largely self-imposed) deadline, but that wasn’t quite the way it worked out, and I found myself shoehorning a few more hours editing into my weekend while I was living in the van at a festival in Cornwall. Officially, I was being paid to work. Unofficially, I was being paid to hide near the amp racks, plug my laptop into a power point, shuffle the elements of the book cover into something cool and sexy, and hope no-one noticed.
I think it worked. And it’s kind of apt that the finishing touches to the book were made hunkered down amid a PA system, because music, and gigs, and life on the road are central to the book. ‘City Baby’ is the autobiography of Ross Lomas, bass player with legendary UK punk band GBH, and you can read more about it here. Or even buy it here. It’s packed with great tales which make me chuckle just to think about them, and is quite possibly the first and only book in existence which offers walk-on parts for the Pope, Prince, Neil Sedaka, the massed cavalry of Argentina, and half of Birmingham. Among others.
Personally, I think it’s every bit as good as the Steve Ignorant book I worked on a few years back. Possibly even better. We’ll have it back from the printers on July 11th, and I really can’t wait. Given that people from the US, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, and the UK have already placed advance orders, it seems I’m not alone. Which is reassuring. Deferred gratification has never been my strong suit, and even though I’ve got reconciled to it – more or less – and realise it’s unavoidable, it still seems like a bloody stupid idea. Would you like fun now, or fun later? What a ridiculous question. I’ll have it now, and I may very well have it later too, thanks very much.
Which is my way of saying I can’t wait to see the book. And yes, I know I’ve got to. But right now, I’m like a kid watching the clock countdown to Xmas so he can open his presents. And the clock’s moving way too slowly, and I can’t wait.
I really can’t wait.

blue peter

Life recently has been a little like an episode of Blue Peter. Not because I’ve been cutting things up with round-ended scissors, not because I’ve been using old Fairy Liquid bottles – with the branding carefully taped over so as not to advertise on BBC prime-time – to create a space rocket, and not even because I’ve covered some old wire coat hangers in tinsel to make an advent decoration (rewarding though that may be).
And not – cynics amongst you – because I’ve found a grown-up to help me with the difficult bits, either. Though god knows that wouldn’t go amiss.
What I have in mind is the episode of Blue Peter where some bloke would come in to the studio and attempt to break the world record for spinning the largest number of plates on top of poles. An utterly pointless activity which made for compelling TV, at least in the ’70s, and which amused John Noakes no end.
It feels like that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months. Working on one project while keeping half an eye on several others to make sure they don’t fall crashing to the floor. Writing a book while hunting down poetry gigs while earning some kind of crust while touting for work while typesetting a book while chasing up a new printers because the one we use has gone into administration while scribbling down a few new poems while trying to have a bit of free time so I don’t burn out. And all this with the ghostly chuckle of Mr Noakes ringing in my ears.
And – finally – I think I’ve made it.
I’ve even found time to knock out this blog, and they’ve been thin on the ground of late. That was one plate/pole combination I didn’t keep my eye on. For the next few days all I have to do is get on the motorbike, point it northwards, and ride up to Lancaster (this Friday) and Wigan (Saturday) for two gigs which I’m really looking forward to. If you’re at a loose end, come along. Bring your friends. It’ll be fun, honest.
From here on in, the summer’s looking a lot less frenetic. Which is a relief. All I need now is some sunshine, some twisting, swooping, empty roads for me and the bike, and a beer garden or two at the end of the day.
And the really good news? If Blue Peter is over, it must be time for Rhubarb & Custard.
Brilliant.

whodathunkit?

Life’s a funny old game. A few years ago I found myself sitting down for a pint with Steve Ignorant, front man of punk legends Crass, and wondering how to answer his suggestion that I worked with him on writing his autobiography.
I’d first met Steve a year earlier, when I’d worked as stage-manager at his ‘Feeding of the 5000’ gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Somehow he’d got hold of my books of poems, read them, liked them, and reckoned I was the person to help him tell his story.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. In many ways, being a poet’s an easy gig. You work on your own, when you want to, you write about whatever takes your fancy, and few poems drag on over more than a couple of hundred words. Could I write a whole book? And be sure Steve would like it? I’d no idea, but I told him I was willing to give it a go.
It was a good decision. Steve was a pleasure to work with, had a wonderful life story and a great world view, and became a good friend. The book, when it came out, was something we were both very proud of.

All of which is a preamble to saying that I’ve been doing the same again. For the past eighteen months I’ve been working with someone from another UK punk band, and the two of us have been putting his story down on paper. It’s taken a while – we’ve had to fit it in round my work and his tour dates – but this week, the first draft will be done and dusted. With a little luck, and a good deal more graft, the finished book will be in our sweaty little palms by the start of summer.
I’ll be making more of a song and dance about it (won’t be much of a dance, mind, not at my age and with these knees) once we’ve sent it to the printers. For now, consider this a heads-up on a book which will be well worth reading, and one I’m very happy to have been involved in helping write. Once again I’ve been privileged to sit with someone and listen to them talk about their life and where it’s led them – and make no mistake, that is a privilege – and have a good old chuckle with them while I’m at it.


I don’t quite know how it is I end up doing the things I do – I never have – but it beats having a proper job. Like I said, life’s a funny old game.
Now excuse me while I scuttle away to write those last few chapters….

open letter to Iain Duncan Smith

Dear IDS,
things can’t be easy right now. But then, when were they ever? You’ve spent your whole life grafting away, and what have you got to show for it? Nothing. You’ve been the nearly man so often, and that’s got to hurt, Iain – you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t – but you’ve put a brave face on it, and you’ve soldiered on. And I respect that.
You’ve made a virtue out of being the quiet man. You’ve been solid, you’ve been dependable. And you’ve been passed over. Always the bridesmaid, and never the bride.
God knows it’s not for want of trying. You’ve always tried. You became leader of your party, and must have believed that great things beckoned, and then you found yourself brought down by lesser men. Small men who couldn’t see the bigger picture, who whispered tales of public money paid to your wife for work she hadn’t done, quibbled about your false claims to have studied at university in Italy, who muttered about the unbecoming nature of male pattern baldness in a leader. They chose Michael Howard over you, Iain. Michael Howard. In a free vote. What were they thinking?
They were intellectual pygmies, Iain, nothing more. The same pygmies who rubbished your one and only novel, who called it terrible, terrible, terrible, who damned it and didn’t even offer the faintest of praise to soften the blow. Pygmies, every last one of them.
But you rose above them, as you surely knew you would. You rolled your sleeves up and you grafted. You prepared the ground. At last you’re poised to take your place in history, to make your mark as the man who reformed our welfare state, who rolled back the benefits system and saved us all from a world where the underclass grows fat and lazy on Sunny Delight, chicken nuggets, and plasma TVs. Fat and lazy at our expense, Iain. But they hadn’t counted on you. The quiet man. The nearly man made good. The turning worm. This was your moment.
So what in god’s holy name were you thinking?
You haven’t a prayer of getting by on £53 a week, Iain, and that’s not just because you’re used to struggling through on £1500 every seven days, it’s because no-one can live on £53 a week. Not week after week after week. Not when the government’s cutting housing benefit and bringing in bedroom tax and setting the dogs of ATOS loose on the disabled. You knew that. All you had to do was keep your big trap shut and the deal was done and dusted, the welfare state was rolled back, the blame was on the poor for being poor, and your future on the after-dinner circuit was secure.
But you’ve blown it.
There’s a petition signed by half a million people demanding that you put your money – all £53 a week of it – where your mouth is, Iain. And we both know you can’t. And so do they. The moment you became the story, the moment you stepped into the limelight out of the shadows where you’d been making the story, you fucked things up so royally that even your rabid cheerleaders at the Daily Mail can’t save you now. History’s going to remember you, but it’ll be as the man who made a Paolo di Canio press conference look like an intellectual triumph. That takes some doing.
Perhaps that’s why Michael Howard won that vote.

before the storm

I know it probably seems as if everything’s gone quiet here, as if there’s been nothing but virtual tumbleweed blowing across this little corner of cyber-world. And I’m very aware that in a world of 24/7 social media and endless self-promotion, this apparent silence is tantamount to a disaster.
So, no. I haven’t died, or joined a cult*. I have taken a little time off from ensuring I have a ‘profile’ and the – frankly exhausting – business of enthusing about myself, to go and do other more important and interesting things instead. Sometimes it does your spirit good to spend all day out on a mountain bike rather than in front of the computer dreaming up witty things to post on facebook.
I’ve been chasing gigs, too. And I’m really pleased to be the resident poet at Rhythmtree festival in July, which sounds like it’s going to have some fantastic musicians from all round the world. And one poet with some words, a quirky sense of humour, and a belief in social change. With any luck, we’ll have the barricades built by curfew.
As long as it doesn’t rain.
Much of my time, though, has been spent knuckling down and working on a project which has been quietly bubbling along for twelve months or more. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to work with Steve Ignorant in writing his autobiography ‘The Rest Is Propaganda’. Now, I’m busy with another book. Again, it tells the life story of someone who grew up with punk. We’ve been grafting away at it, and now we’ve almost finished the first draft. With a little luck, and a modicum of nose to the grindstone, we could have it ready by the end of June.
For now, this is the calm before the storm. In fact, it’s the calm before another couple of months of calm, after which there may – if not a storm – be squally showers, possibly cyclonic. Especially in Dogger, and German Bight. Though hopefully not at Rhythmtree, which will be blessed by unbroken sunshine if a poet gets his way.
If you don’t hear anything from me for a while, folks, I’m busy with the book.
Or a cult. 

We’ll see how it goes.
 
*other than the cult of slightly strange people who believe poetry still has a role in the 21st century. That’s quite enough to be going on with.

bloody whimsy

I’ve a gig in Bristol on March 1st – do come along if you live nearby – and I’m looking forward to it immensely. It’s a little different from your average poetry night. Yes, I get to do the usual, a 40-minute set of my own work – with a few new pieces thrown into the mix just to keep us all interested – but then, after an interval for everyone to wet the back of their throat with a couple of beers, we head off into what is, for me at least, unexplored territory.
Part of the brief for the evening is that for my second set of the night I get to pick, talk about, and share with the audience pieces of work by other authors which have inspired me. It doesn’t have to be poetry – the whole world of literature is up for grabs, so I’ve my work cut out to narrow the selection down. But while I was mulling this over as I walked the dog this morning, I found myself wondering… what’s the point of poetry in a time of austerity?
After all, there’s people out in the real world losing jobs, losing benefits, being hit with a bedroom tax, and generally struggling to make ends meet. There are cuts in services, libraries and swimming pools are closing, the future’s looking less than rosy, and the siren voices that encourage us to blame the ‘other’ (immigrants, the unemployed, people of different faiths, or a combination of all three) are shouting their hatred from the rooftops. In this climate, surely poetry’s an irrelevance, a self-indulgence. Isn’t it?*
Well, no. For me, my poems – whatever the subject matter – are an opportunity to express my heartfelt belief in our common humanity. A chance to focus on our hope for a better world as well as our reservations about the one we have. I think that’s important. The same is true about much of the work I love. It reminds us that the closer you get to an examination of someone else’s life, the harder it becomes to judge them, and the more you see them as a human being. Flawed, undoubtedly, but human nonetheless.
There’s a wonderful prose piece by the poet Adrian Mitchell, called ‘Naming The Dead’. Check it out, it’s worth reading in full. In it, he demands a world where ‘every death inflicted by any government [is] the subject of a book published at the state’s expense’. Each book would tell the victim’s life story, complete with pictures, interviews with friends, their taste in music, and so on. The result? War would become too expensive to wage. He finishes:
This is no bloody whimsy. I want a real reason for every killing. 
Poetry at its best. Challenging, imaginative, and passionate. And very far from irrelevant. Right now, I’d say we need that just as much as ever. Wouldn’t you?
 
*For organisers of poetry events wondering how on earth what I do is ‘entertainment’, let me reassure you: I am available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and birthdays. I’m sure I can fit them in around my rabble-rousing meetings down the docks….

rolling them up

So after a wee bit of a fit of can’t-be-arsed earlier in the month, I’ve now hit the ground running. Or at least stumbling in the right direction. Emails fired off to poetry nights and festivals, begging for gigs throughout the year – and threatening to turn up on their doorstep and sob if they don’t play ball.* Some of them have answered already, and none of them have threatened an injunction. So it’s all good.
See, I don’t do moping well. I get bored of that just as easily as I get bored of most things that largely involve sitting watching the world go by while not taking part. So although I have my moments, they’re usually followed by some concerted sock-pulling-up and a walk or bike ride out into some wild, open spaces to get a bit of perspective on my life. Either that or a visit to the pub. But seeing as it’s January – which is always no booze month in my strange little world – the open spaces are my only option. Whether that’s making thirty-one days drag on more than a cold, grey, miserable month would normally, I really can’t say. My time’s too full of displacement activity so I don’t dwell upon the desirability of a golden, hoppy ale in a cosy tavern, or a friendly inn.
. Sigh.
What this all means is that I’m hoping to have news of a fistful of poetry gigs before too long. Which means that I’d best roll up my sleeves and get on with finishing the half-written, hastily scrawled drafts I’ve been working on. Expect some angry, anguished poems inspired by the hollow emptiness of life without alcohol. Or maybe something erring on the beatific now that I’m above such worldly cravings. Who can say?
1st February, you can’t come soon enough.
 
*I’m only joking about that, poetry gig organisers. Really. I don’t do stalking.

bah humbug

Poets. Moody buggers at the best of times. I was really looking forward to 2013 – there’s gigs lined up (one in London next week, for starters), the Youtube video has garnered well over 1000 hits (more than I ever dared hope), and some very nice people had said some very nice things about my work (which I’d never expected). So, plenty to be positive about as the year gets into its stride.
And yet. Halfway through January my enthusiasm has rather ebbed away. In part, that’s because I’ve spent the past week locked in a vicious struggle with a bout of man-flu – and we all know how deadly that can be – which confined me to the house every bit as effectively as an editorial about ‘broken Britain’ keeps Daily Mail readers cowering behind locked doors (at least I wasn’t boring everyone senseless with the news that grapefruit is the new superfood, or that coffee causes cancer – or does it cure it? – but it was probably only a matter of time).
Mainly, though, it’s the other stuff. Friends losing jobs. Friends struggling to get by. A friend’s disabled daughter facing a cut in housing benefit simply for living on her own in a two-bedroom flat. A government which misses no opportunity to demonise the poor and unemployed. All in it together? I very much doubt it. It’s the same old same old, all over again.
An article in The Guardian this week bemoaned the absence of politically engaged art in response to this attack on vulnerable people. I guess it depends where you look – there’s plenty of poets and writers out there holding up a mirror to what goes on, and not all of us have fallen for the big lie that sets ‘workers’ against ‘shirkers’ – but you know what? We’re living in one of the richest countries in the world, where we’ve the resources to ensure that no-one goes hungry, or is homeless, or can’t afford to pay their bills. So how about we show a little ambition and make that our aim? How about that for a New Year resolution? Worth a go, isn’t it?
Happy 2013 to you all.* For those of you expecting a poetry blog on a poetry site to be about – well – poetry, my apologies. Normal service will be resumed soon. Or maybe not.
We’ll see.
 
*If Ian Duncan Smith reads this blog, he’s not included.

changing the world (one poem at a time)

Corporate tax evasion.
It bugs the living bejesus out of me. I know the big transnationals like to call it tax minimisation, as if it’s utterly harmless, as if it’s as near as dammit a good thing, just a tiny unimportant detail no-one in their right minds should worry about, but whenever powerful people try to sanitise language, I can’t help but smell a rat.
Trouble is, as soon as you try to articulate all it is you find wrong about a world where rich executives believe it’s acceptable to put a love of money before a love of people, it’s all too easy to end up writing a manifesto. Or sounding like you’re against everything, rather than for something better. As options go, neither of those make good poetry. With the waste-paper basket overflowing with failed drafts, I gave up on it all as a bad thing, and settled for chuntering about it into my beer, like everyone else.
Then one morning I woke up in a friend’s house in Leeds and the poem had written itself. All I had to do was reach for a pen and paper, grab a coffee, and read the words my sleepy hand scrawled across the page. That evening, at a gig, I road-tested the poem in front of an audience. It worked.
You’ll find ‘No-one likes an angry poet’ on the Poems page of this website (where else?) and – after an afternoon spent in an empty pub in Brum with a video camera – you can even watch it on YouTube, complete with the glitches that show it was done by two blokes with no budget, a couple of hours to spare, and the germ of an idea.
I hope you enjoy it. If you do, share it. Together, we might just change the world.
One poem at a time.
Useful links:
UK Uncut
Tax Research UK
Tax Justice Network

for love or money

So my third book of poetry, ‘Island Songs’, was officially published by Ignite Books yesterday. I’ve been selling copies for a few weeks already, at gigs and readings, and via the Ignite website, but now it’s official you can also wander in to your local bookshop and order a copy from them if you’d prefer to do that.
I’m really proud of the book – it’d be a strange author who didn’t feel chuffed to bits at seeing their work in print – but I’m under no illusions about the challenges ahead. Sales of poetry books are generally measured in tens rather than hundreds, and simply breaking even can be a major achievement. Most poetry collections never get that far. Very few poets make a living from their work. Which rather begs the question: why bother doing it at all?
The obvious answer is that we do it for love. But obvious answers aren’t always the most honest ones. The truth is that all through human history, as soon as humans have sorted out the basics –  shelter, food, fresh water, and something natty to wear – then they start to make art. They write stories, make songs, draw pictures on cave walls or chapel ceilings, and so on. It’s a compulsion, a drive that makes no sense when viewed through the distorting mirror of pounds and pence. Writers, composers, musicians, painters, sculptors and photographers will often make investments of time, materials, and money which they can never hope to see repaid. Yet still we do it.
It all sounds wonderfully romantic, this refusal to be bothered by something as mundane as earning a crust. Artists, according to popular myth, are never more content than when they’re starving in a garret, or suffering for their art.
Not true. Artists make art because in doing so we find an engagement with the world, and a way of making sense of it. We want other people to share that. There isn’t an artist I know who wouldn’t want to sell more books, or more paintings, or have more people come to their gigs. Too many artists have to turn their back on their art because the brute force of economics mean they simply can’t afford to carry on giving up the time and energy and money necessary to pursue their passion.
And I think the world is a poorer place when that happens.

train-spotting

Poetry has an image problem.
Really, it does. In the popular imagination, poets are loners who skulk in bedsits. They’re self-obsessed and melancholic, socially inept and badly dressed, and their work is so clod-hoppingly awful that the mere threat they’ll read it aloud is the fastest way known to civilisation of moving any gathering of people from A (within earshot) to B (a place of safety).
The result? Most people would no more think of going to a poetry reading than they’d consider sitting at home and pulling their own teeth out with a pair of pliers. Because poetry is terminally uncool. It’s about as far from fun as it’s possible to get. Worse than that, it’s painful. Whatever poets might think they’re doing, their only real achievement is to make train-spotting seem edgy.*
More than a tad unfair. Poetry nights can entertain and amaze in equal measure. There’s comical, moving, crafted, passionate, incisive work. Poems that’ll make you laugh out loud, poems that’ll knock the wind out of your sails, poems that’ll open the world up so you see it in a way you didn’t before. Someone gets up to do an open-mic spot and performs with unexpected skill and poise, and suddenly you’re lost in the moment, just as you are when you’re caught up in a film, or deep in a good book.
Yes, there’s also poetry that’ll do nothing for you. I’ve watched international acts whose work speaks to no-one but themselves, or featured poets who’ve been a disappointment, or a perfectly decent poem has been ruined by that awful poetry voice some people feel they have to use when they read, but which I’ll never see the point of. But I’d no more judge all poetry by that than I’d write off all trip-hop because I don’t like grime, or say I don’t like folk because of thrash metal, or condemn music in its entirety just because of Simon Cowell.
Poetry. You’ll like some of it, you won’t like it all. It’s that simple. Personally, I think the best ones talk to you like you talk to your mates over a beer, or round a fire, or at the end of a long night clubbing. You might like an entirely different kind of poetry. That’s half the joy of it. Write it all off, however, and you’re really missing out.
Which is plain stupid, isn’t it?
 
*Credit where credit’s due, that’s quite an achievement.

kicking and screaming

So here it is. Craic. The new kid on this particular website’s block.
For some months now I’ve been meaning to set up some kind of blog, a page where I can get up on my hind legs and spout off about whatever’s been inspiring or infuriating or enticing me. In past years I did that down the pub, but now I drink less. Then there was facebook, which was grand for a while, till they started filling it with adverts and taking ‘aggressive begging’ to a whole new level. Yes, there’s always Twitter, but that 140 character strait-jacket is a wee bit snug. So I thought, Sod it. Let’s have a bit of craic and do something new.
And, a few months down the line, here it is. I hope you’re going to enjoy it. I hope that, like the best nights down the pub, there’ll be laughter, conversation, and a tiny bit of setting the world to rights. I hope there’s new friendships made, old ones strengthened, decent beer on tap, and some wasabi peas to go with it. Come on in, grab a seat by the fire, the musicians will be here later.
If we’re lucky, there might just be a lock-in.