English Drama and the English Civil War

My Sky Arts commissioned play on the English Civil War, The Battle of Heptonstall opens on February 28th. Research for the piece led me in a number of directions and recently out of interest rather than necessity, to looking at what happened to English drama in the period and why, considering the magnitude of the historical events, the English Civil War continues to be so seldom dramatised on stage and screen.

 Publike sports do not well agree with Publike Calamities, nor Publike stage-playes with   the Seasons of Humiliation…it is therefore thought fit and Ordained that stage-playes     shall cease.’

In 1642 playhouses were closed. They were to stay closed for the next eighteen years though no one foresaw that at the time. There was not one order issued by parliament but rather a series based on reports and complaints and the reasons for the closures changed with the progress of the Civil War. In 1642 it was about the need to pray rather than play. The wording of the order invites the public into common cause with parliament, to set sport and leisure to one side at a moment of unprecedented crisis shortly before the war began. The major concern at the time was invasion by an Irish army. After the rising of 1641 coastal areas were rife with rumours of invasion. London was in political turmoil inside and outside parliament, Christmas of 1641 was punctuated by rioting in Whitehall and the breakdown of links between London and the King. The order of 1642 is passed on the cusp of war on 2nd September; on the 9th Essex takes command of a parliamentary army to confront Charles I.

An order of 1647 contrastingly emphasised suppression and punishment of offenders, it gave sheriffs jurisdiction to arrest actors and ‘imprison rogues’. Eventually in 1648, with the puritan revolution in full vigour an order was issued to pull playhouses down. Just as the Civil War had its roots in the years prior so did the suppression of theatre. In 1639 a play was produced in London, The Cardinal’s Conspiracy which satirised the clergy and resulted in the arrest of the actors. If theatre had a side in the period, it was by and large royalist. Imaginative spectacle never sat well in the Puritan psyche that in the end banned Christmas and maypoles and had boys whipped for playing football on Sundays. Theatre responded to the suppression by working at the edges and by going underground. Short plays known as ‘drolls’ popped up in taverns on the outskirts of towns. There is evidence from pamphlets that street theatre takes on a new significance whilst mainstream plays that would otherwise be at the Cockpit or the Salisbury Court are performed in private houses. What remerges in 1660 is Restoration drama, defining itself as a rebellion against the interregnum.

The best-known fact about the Restoration drama is that it is immoral. The dramatists did not criticize the accepted morality about gambling, drink, love, and pleasure generally, or try, like the dramatists of our own time, to work out their own view of character and conduct. What they did was, according to their respective inclinations, to mock at all restraints. Some were gross, others delicately improper….The dramatists did not merely say anything they liked: they also intended to glory in it and to shock those who did not like it.

From George Clark’s The Later Stuarts 1660 – 1714.

The new drama is more commercial, playhouses that are built are smaller than those of renaissance theatres and women are not only on stage, they are writing plays. Charles II not only brought an entourage over France he brought cultural influences as well and one of the most successful women playwrights of the Restoration dramatist Susannah Centlivre made a career of adapting French theatre for the English stage.

What is there in the way of contemporary drama about the Civil War? By way of the theatre, there is Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill (1976). More recently Howard Brenton’s 55 Days. In film, there is a biopic of Cromwell, of Winstanley, and more recently To Kill a King. On television By the Sword Divided from the early eighties, more recently Peter Flannery’s excellent The Devil’s Whore. There are one or two others perhaps: A Field in England and Witchfinder General which use the war as a back drop but the specific dramas are not that hard to bring to mind. In comparison with the ubiquitous Tudor’s there is relatively little. And yet, more people died per head of the population than in any other war in our history, including the First World War. Ireland suffered a loss of up to 41% of its population. Putting these numbers into the context of other catastrophes helps to understand the devastation to Ireland in particular. The Great Hunger of 1845–1852 resulted in a loss of 16% of the population, while during the Second World War the population of the Soviet Union fell by 16%. Those two events are burned into the psyche of the national narratives, the Civil War is largely absent from England’s.

It is admittedly a difficult narrative to dramatise. The English Civil War is a complex if not complicated subject. It was not a class war and though the completion of the reformation, it was not protestants versus Catholics either but rather many persuasions of Protestantism against Catholic affectations. Furthermore, it is not a pretty sight, particularly if you’re English. English writers find it easier write about the Spanish Civil War, a subject best avoided in Spain. Perhaps we want to be reassured by history; that it’s composed of an inevitable continuum that leads to here, the right path. The Civil War was a detour that no one had a map for.

The fact that artistic expression during the period was so meagre hasn’t helped subsequent representation. There is Milton of course and there is Andrew Marvell but I know of no outstanding drama and the novel has not yet emerged. The theatre director Max Stafford Clark said that the closure of theatres during the interregnum created the space for the development of the novel, but Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not published until 1678 and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is 1719. The novel begins when you can read them. There are few literary and no particular dramatic style from our period that writers can draw from.

When dramatists do tackle the subject they often go in through the door of the revolution, the latter stages of the conflict and the Levellers. Playwrights mostly shoot from the left and one of the consequences of this is that the Levellers are framed as proto socialists which in reality they were not. They were of their time and if one has to, and I don’t think we should, interpret them in terms of today they are classical liberals committed to the rights of the individual. There is no doubt though, that the demand that they raise at the Putney debates of 1647, universal male suffrage more or less, is revolutionary. It’s an extraordinary moment as Cromwell describes it in The Devil’s Whore, “a form of government unknown on this earth.”

 ‘I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’  

Colonel Sir Thomas Rainsborough, Leveller and MP for Droitwich, The Putney Debates.

The Brutish Multitude

The Brutish Multitude

Rehersals with Sky TV filming

In Heptonstall in 1643 there are no Levellers, victory is up for grabs, the King could have easily won the day and I have gone in through the door of a man who wants to avoid the conflict. John Cockcroft is as was said at the time like most men in England, ‘neither hot nor cold’.  But he knows it will destroy his livelihood, already at risk because of his failing eyesight and his feckless son. He does what he can to prevent the war entering his family’s life but fails, which he has to because otherwise there wouldn’t be a play. I have entered the national conflict through the personal lives of characters, it lays its eggs in a love affair between the weaver’s son who does not want to follow his father and an orphan girl Rose, who lives with two other women upon the moor, independently of men. And it had to be a community play. One could with the budget from Sky make a play with half a dozen professional actors but I felt a community play is much more apposite to the context and the timing and indeed what happened here in 1643. For the battle, the skirmish here, involved people of the village, and the war, as wars do impacted on those who wanted no part of it

The Battle of Heptonstall St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall 28th Feb – March 2nd, & Saturday March 9th Halifax Minster. Tickets £10 at eventbrite.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The James Ruse Story: An Epic Tale of Everyman

In 1782 at the age of twenty-three, farm labourer James Ruse was sentenced to hang for stealing two silver watches in the village of South Petherwin, Cornwall. He was reprieved and sentenced instead to transportation to one of his Majesty’s settlements on the coast of Africa for the term of seven years. He wasn’t taken to Africa because the convict settlement was almost immediately doomed by climate and disease. He was sent instead to a prison hulk off Devonport and then four years later to Sydney Cove, New South Wales. Ruse acquired some prominence in the history of transported convicts and that of his adopted country by being awarded the first land grant on the continent. He is Australia’s first self-sufficient farmer. But it does not end there for he was at the cusp of several significant moments of the infant colony, to such an extent that it appears almost strange.

He was reputedly the first ashore in 1788 at Botany Bay, ferrying the officers up on the beach on his back. He was among the first emancipated. As well as being given the first land grant at Parramatta he went and laid claim to plot number one on the Hawkesbury River, placing him at the apex of a conflict with indigenous Australians that at the Hawkesbury escalated to a war. His wife, convict Elizabeth Perry was the first woman emancipated. The description of Ruse’s process of composting and fertilising the soil in Watkin Tench’s memoir 1788, is apparently the first ever written record of such a process. Captain Tench who was uninterested and generally unsympathetic to convicts, devotes more than a page of prose to Ruse and singles him out for praise.

I am not aware of any historian suggesting an explanation for the repeated cameo roles that Ruse performed, for I suspect there is no research out there to be found. Let’s face it, European settlement was at its very beginning so it is hardly surprising that an individual, anyone that survived long enough, could be at the forefront of one endeavour after another. Yet even as we begin to look more closely, at one poetic moment: Ruse carrying the officers on his back up the beach, we learn that he had rowed the longboat from the ship Supply, a ship that officially carried no convicts, a ship that carried only marines including the Commodore, the future Governor of Australia. Why was he on board?

It is left to fiction to explain, to the art of story to tell us why. The James Ruse story needs the causality of plot and likewise historical fiction has an ongoing vacancy for the story of James Ruse. For another feature of this man’s life, are the pendulous changes of fortune, his long physical struggle against man and nature, and against man’s nature itself, including his own.

Those that know his story, including his many descendants, will each have their own James Ruse, constructed upon what biographical facts we can be sure of. His character is formed in Cornwall, that we know. In all probability brought up on a farm. But my James, the twenty three-year old that steals the silver watches is not a farmer, he is a landless labourer, a cottager dependant on common land fast becoming enclosed. He might even be a squatter on the edge of woodland living in a hovel he has built himself. He knows how to eke out a living, a food supply from a narrow strip of land, a kitchen garden, the few livestock he has on commons pasture. He is near the bottom of an economic system that dates back to the Norman Conquest, some say the Roman invasion. An agricultural system and an agricultural community that was taken apart at the end of the eighteenth century, as England went from a country of commons and common fields to a land of individualist agriculture and large enclosed farms. He is someone who dreams of establishing himself as a farmer, of securing a tenancy, of following his father. It is this ambition to escape common land farming that drives my James to steal the watches and it is also his cottager’s ability to live off scraps of land that enables him to succeed at Parramatta.

That he is chosen for a place on the Supply, and for a chance to prove himself self sufficient at Experiment Farm, I have put down to the humanity of Watkin Tench, and to the notion that Ruse convinced Tench that he had been a farmer with acres of his own back in Cornwall. Tench wrote out his life in memoirs particularly his early adventures but there are five years missing. Some say he was, for part of that time at least, captain of a prison hulk off Devonport, the Dunkirk where James Ruse was held. An unglamorous experience he chose not to write about. The Watkin Tench in my story is there, driving a plot forward if not the ship.

IMG_1530

Site of Ruse’s first farm on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales.

Until now Ruse has not had the attention of novelists or dramatists. He is perhaps seen as a little too pedestrian. The dogged farmer, clearing the bush, clod-moulding the earth. He didn’t escape, he didn’t try to, he never became a bushwhacker, and he wasn’t a highwayman to begin with. But he was a man always on the edge of calamity, his life and endeavours bound up with the very existence of the penal colony in New South Wales. He faced starvation, flooding at the Hawkesbury, losing land, beginning over, time after time, years of perilous sealing including a mysteriously ill-fated mission on the Speedwell. His story is epic because his deeds were quietly heroic. It is also an Everyman story of redemption and I have given my James a spiritual life as a Methodist. The James of us all we know became a Catholic in the end, shortly before he died.

Whenever I visit a stately home in England the guide will tell me that the property ‘was built by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1720’. Somehow I’m never able to imagine the earl with a trowel. I look at the marble, who carved that? Who built the walls, cut the stone pillars? What were they like, how much were they paid? Or as Bertolt Brecht put it, Caesar defeated the Gauls/Did he not even have cook with him? So it is with Ruse, barely known to many Australians. Though he has a school named after him he is for me still too much on the margins of history, perhaps because of his class, his unromantic occupation. He was also someone, one among many, who tore his limbs and bent his back making farm after farm to feed the colony, to feed himself and his family, to begin the making of modern Australia.

hawkesbury-plaque.jpg

My novel The Stony Ground, The Remembered Life of Convict James Ruse is published by Waterside Press and is now available.

Forthcoming book launches Australia

June 23rd, Cambelltown and Airds Historical Society see here

July 8th, Hawkesbury Regional Museum see here

June 30th, Experiment Farm Cottage, Parramatta, see below.

July 1st. The descendants of James Ruse. Private function.

The-Stony-Ground-Invitation-30-June-2018-at-EFC

‘Tommy ow’s yer soul?’ Broken Soldiers and Soldiers’ Children

I’ve been working with soldiers and their children for the last few years, as a researcher and as a writer. It has been instructive, about the world I live in as much as the one they do. For a year I worked as a researcher for a university, part of a team that evaluated a drug and alcohol recovery scheme run exclusively for ex-service personnel. It meant travelling around the north interviewing mostly former soldiers who had significant problems with alcohol abuse. Many had been through other programmes that hadn’t worked and most put it down to civilians’ lack of understanding of their experiences and culture, the absence of the camaraderie that soldiers possess, people asking them questions such as Did you ever kill anyone?

Though many had left the army years before the soldier was still present and their continued drinking was testament to that. Most said the army had taught them to drink from a young age, from their twelve weeks basic training. To not go to the bar each evening, to not even drink copiously, would leave a recruit open to ridicule, to bullying from the outset, and bullying in the army isn’t like bullying at the council. People spoke of drinking rituals, one involving a glass boot filled with three different coloured liquors.

‘There were people no one wanted to run behind the next morning because they were bound to puke.’

There was for some veterans a trigger, a particular experience, usually during combat that intensified their drinking. One man, whose drinking had cost him his family, spoke to me about his experience in Basra, Iraq.

‘Nothing could have prepared us for that. For what happened. The training we did. Running round the Brecon Beacons with a pack on your back? I was put in charge of  prisoners and I couldn’t cope.’

For others no one incident was cited but there was the obvious sustained stress of tours in Northern Ireland, or in Bosnia, Iraq etc.

‘Ireland, seen a few killed. Falklands, seen a lot killed.’

As well as combat fatigue there is also combat regret. One veteran began an interview by stating, ‘You wouldn’t like me if you knew what I’d done.’  Another,

‘In the last five years…it’s been coming back to me, what I did, and why I didn’t question it, but that was your military for you. It’s later on in life I’ve learned to question what actions I did when I was a lot younger, then the dreams started coming.  Think the spring just broke.’

A recurring theme was how little preparation there was for life after the army. The army breaks down the civilian to create the solider but not the other way round. Most expressed disappointment and antipathy with the individualism of civilian life. There’s no respect, no discipline, no camaraderie, it’s all backstabbing. The discreet programme they were part of was comparatively successful because of the values that the army had taught them. They supported one another to a degree they would not have done had they not been former soldiers. They organised their own events and each local group had their selected champions who seemed akin to corporals. Their humour was predictably tough, their outlook more stoical than most, as one veteran remarked,

‘In the dictionary the word sympathy is somewhere between shite and suicide.’

They talked a great deal about the strength of comradeship amongst soldiers about friendship, pals, having one another’s back in general and specifically on patrol; how much they missed those bonds. They disliked the boastfulness, the shallow egotism of civilian life. At the conference to launch the report’s findings, an employment worker remarked that one of the problems that former soldiers had in finding work was their reluctance, their refusal even, to sell themselves. Sadly true perhaps, but for me that was an asset that they possessed and the rest of us didn’t. Even though during that time I was the paid observer and they the problematical subject, there was some things about them I envied.

A year prior I was commissioned to write a play for Burnley Youth Theatre to commemorate the First World War. The project would also involve working with children from Preston Barracks, home of the Lancashire Regiment. My first thought was, how am I going to do this without derivation? After Oh What a Lovely War the most well-known stage play concerning WW1 is The Accrington Pals, the story of the Lancashire Regiment at the Somme. So I went to Gallipoli, to Cape Helles where six Lancashire fusiliers won VCs on the same morning and I went to an imaginary munitions factory. The young people from Burnley Youth Theatre were terrific as I already knew, the children from the barracks, who had never been in a play before, also. They had taken the greater step and soldiers and family members from the barracks attended the shows and I sensed there was more than family pride at work, both in the performances and in the audience. A little later an army welfare worker contacted me to say they wanted to make a film about the impact of soldiering upon soldiers’ children. It wasn’t something that Arts Council England was going to throw money at so it took some time to raise the money, but we’ve recently started work on the project.

The barracks have a youth club and it is there that I work with the children to devise, to write dialogue and poetry for the film. A few things have struck me at the outset. Firstly, how much their education is disrupted by families repeatedly moving home. An eleven year old I spoke to was currently on her sixth school, starting a seventh in September.  This is not unusual. Also, the number of children whose fathers had experienced combat.

‘My daddy was shot and he almost died but’s he’s better now.’

‘My dad was in Afghanistan and in a jeep behind another jeep and a boy came up to the one in front and blew himself up and my dad got out to help the people that were injured.’

‘I’ve seen some medals round the house, I don’t know what he did for them, but his knee doesn’t work properly now. He says he won’t have me joining the army because it’s dangerous and he’s thinking about getting out.’

Children are without their fathers for long periods of time during which their fathers are in harm’s way. The children talk a lot about missing friends they made at previous postings. A couple of children said they were frightened of terrorists killing their fathers in the UK. One lad said he was getting in fights at school because his father was a soldier but wouldn’t say exactly why. And there is also resilience and pride. One youngster said that moving around the UK and abroad was interesting and she was smarter and stronger for it. Being an army kid is special and early days it may be, but there is agreement that whilst the narrative of what will probably be a twenty minute film, will deal with separation and anxiety, the tone will not be one of pathos but rather validation if not celebration.

During the Blair years there was an overt attempt to promote the armed forces in the context of the unpopular war in Iraq. Soldiers seemed to be popping up at presentations at half-time, Crufts and elsewhere, a tin rattled for Help the Heroes in every shopping centre. The veterans I spoke to during the research project wanted no part of that but neither did they want the grief they got from the Stop The War crowd on Poppy Day. They desired a degree of respect and meaningful employment. The employment they had come from had been overwhelmingly physical, the terrain of work beyond it, increasingly non-physical, requiring ‘soft skills’. Like a lot of working class men in mid-life, they don’t fit in any more.

More than anything they wanted what is increasingly rare in Britain today: solidarity at work and in their community, which is why they hung out with their old comrades, drinking or struggling not to drink. Many of them were in the process of repairing relationships with their own children. Former soldiers are far more likely than other occupations to commit crime, in particular violent crime. They are more likely to become homeless and experience poor mental health. Assisting veterans adjust to civilians life isn’t just about putting them at the front of the job centre queue. It might be about recognising that they have different values, values that should not be seen as redundant or to be mocked even, but might in fact be worth learning from.

Squaddie

He meets his regiment mates every week,
not at the Legion – not no more after what he said
to a former officer there.

They make plans over pints to occupy themselves,
short hikes and long distance footpaths
days plotted from a to b.

He’s worked out how to go from Sheffield to London by bus,
the routes, times, numbers all listed,
he briefs them on the expense the excursion will incur.

Under his shirt his back wears a relief map
of burns where a petrol bomb splashed across him
one Saturday in Derry.

They sit at the back of the bus sipping cans,
talk about the coppers coming
for something that was done in Ireland,

what that Asian lad said to him on Poppy Day,
about six am on the parade ground
before he became someone else’s job
and had to rely on people who don’t show up on time.

Is the Genie out of the Bottle? Brexit and the future of democracy in Britain

One cannot help but feel that democracy is in trouble here. It’s not on the ropes but it is getting the pounding that could leave it bloodied and reeling, ready for the count. It has many assailants: the Judiciary, the House of Lords, faithless politicians, television and radio, all scurrying to try and undo the biggest political mandate in British history. After Parliament asked the demos a straightforward question, congratulating itself for placing such trust in the people, the wrong answer came back. Since then, much of the political class have done little else bar seeking to have the question asked again, or advocating the answer that 17.4 million people gave, be ignored. Lately Leave voters have been treated to the undignified seething contempt of Vince Cable, a contempt that I suspect he and his kind have held much of their lives.

Cable

The over reaction to the referendum result cannot be divorced from who voted which way and the most likely indicator of how people voted, beyond geography and race, is class. As someone in north Manchester told John Harris of The Guardian, ‘If you’ve got money you’re in, if you haven’t you’re out.’ Bradford, a famously multiracial City, voted Leave. It’s a predominantly working class place, and it’s in the north, which is why that happened and why you won’t have seen that mentioned in the TV debates. It is the factor of class above all others that drives those that now stand opposed to the implementation of the mandate, and in truth to democracy. The BBC and indeed many Labour politicians repeatedly remind us that it was the ‘less educated’ who voted Leave. Dianne Abbot wasted no time in describing the Leave vote as a racist vote.

There is so much in the saga that is depressing and injurious for our democracy, our civil society. The Gina Miller shenanigans, liberals and the Left cheering on high court judges and their new found comrades in the House of Lords, the perpetual exploitation of Jo Cox’s murder, the routine vitriol heaped on working class Leave voters by politicians who are handsomely paid to represent them. But arguably the worst of it is this: the voice of chattering class Remain voters proclaiming that there are more important things than democracy. This increasingly outspoken and growing authoritarianism is a new phenomenon, or perhaps an Edwardian one reborn, and one that emerged prior to the referendum under the managerialism of the Blair years. Politics is no longer a matter of belief or opinion, it is about being right or wrong and the technocracy always knows best.

your decision

The more important things can be broadly divided into ‘the economy’ and increasingly ‘racism’ or more precisely, the necessity of avoiding any accusation of racism at all costs. That George Osborne’s economic forecasts for the aftermath of a Leave majority have proven to be nonsense, is apparently besides the point, project fear is constantly renewing itself and we are in the words of Sadiq Khan, about to fall off a cliff. Again. The argument follows that the referendum result is meaningless because the point of voting,  the point of the electorate, is to serve economic growth and any decision that doesn’t do that is technically off side. Leave voters being less likely to have attended a university is in this argument, both cause and result: economic failures turning their backs on economic opportunity. You don’t have to go far on social media or elsewhere to find that people who voted Leave are morally and intellectually inferior to ‘the rest of us,’ and to hear that some of them, particularly older people, should have the right to vote taken off them. When I first heard this said on Radio Four, I was shocked. Now the Liberal Democrats say it at press conferences, a playwright said it down the phone to me the other day. Neither is it unusual to hear members of The Guardian club question whether ‘the uninformed’ should be allowed a say in such important matters, by which they mean removing the vote from the poor. The progressive discourse is moving fast, it’s now moved on to who gets to decide who doesn’t vote. And all this, in the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act of 1918.

Brexit is racist

The other trump card played alongside the first, is that those who oppose unlimited and indefinite mass migration from the EU are motivated only by racism. It doesn’t matter what they say about sovereignty, about being a socialist since you were seventeen, you’re a little Englander. Indeed the Brexit backing Morning Star itself was described as such, the Stalinist handbook rewritten to be used against its very authors. The upshot is, that the denunciation alone invalidates the referendum result because racism now has the position that original sin once did; unless proven otherwise we are all damned by the worst of all offences. All white people that is. The paranoia around racism and the accusation of it, is corrupting public life and personal lives, as well as trivialising people’s very real experiences of racial discrimination.

In the last couple of days, a news story has broken about child abuse and related murders in Telford , grave crimes that have continued for decades involving children as young as eleven. The victims were and are white working class girls, the perpetrators Pakistani men. It is the latest, and it appears the largest of many such cases across England. Like in so many of the others, police and social workers are reported as looking the other way because they were frightened of being accused of racism. People more worried about what that would do to their reputation than the sexual exploitation of children. This is where the power of identity politics ends up, shovelling obscenity upon obscenity at the graveyard of human decency. Telford stands out because of its longevity, the number of children, the murders, the magnitude of the suffering. What’s also fast become a related secondary story, is that two days after it was on every other news channel and even in The Guardian, BBC coverage was scant and MPs were not talking about it much either. Indeed, on the day after the story broke, MP Caroline Lucas took the opportunity to ask an emergency question in the commons to discuss harassment and bullying of MPs by other MPs.

Lucas

Caroline Lucas’s emergency question is where self-regarding bourgeois feminists end up: thinking that an MP touching another MP’s knee warrants an emergency question in Parliament, instead of the largest and longest case of child abuse in the country’s history, one that has lasted for nearly forty years and has finally got the authorities’ attention. Lucas’s response to criticism was inevitably that people were using Telford to ‘whip up racial hatred.’ If the alleged sin of racism can make the police blind, MPs deaf and the BBC silent, it can and is being used to undo the referendum result and undo democracy. I’m 60 next year, I’ve never been called racist in my life, not until I voted Leave, and now I’m running out of fingers to count on. I do take it personally but often it isn’t meant as such. It is just part of a paradoxical narrative that believes the vote to leave the EU is part of a far right surge in British public life, that the white working class are a pogrom waiting to happen and the only way to stem this is to put democracy on hold. Historically, authoritarianism in Europe and fascism in particular, was borne from a fear of the working class power.

The notion of Leave voters’ racism and mass stupidity is not merely abuse, or mythology, it is for some a cast iron belief, a fact as real as the moral and intellectual superiority of the Remain case. Such certainty is dangerous to democracy and if you want an historical example, you should read Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain, an Everest of a book. It is a mosaic of personal accounts from interviews with 300 participants of the conflict from either side, skirmish by skirmish. One is faced with common enmity and humanity on facing pages. Fraser takes us right inside both camps listening to how people lived the war. Leave and Remain need to look at the facing pages of the referendum, look into each other’s camp, and I have to say, Remain more than Leave because switching on the TV or radio these days is like listening to Pathe news for the EU. Whether we exit the EU or not the managerialism that has become authoritarianism will not leave the scene. It has found its feet in the anti-Brexit movement and I fear has them under the table at the Labour Party. From proposals for all women train carriages to the no platforming of speakers, the banning of newspapers on trains, the media witch hunts to the undermining of the biggest popular vote in our history, something rotten, something deeply reactionary is abroad. If the vote to leave the EU is betrayed it will inevitably undermine the legitimacy of future governments, for no one, not Atlee, Thatcher or Blair, gets 52%. And each of those in their way, made greater changes to this country than leaving a free trade outfit. Even if we do leave the EU, the authoritarian genie is out of the bottle.

But there are other movements afoot as well. I went to the first meeting of Artists for Brexit last week in London. There were some great artists there, including novelist Helen Dale, songwriter and former Culture Club member Phil Picket, and painter Michael Lightfoot. We’re not re running the debate, we’re bi partisan, open to Leave and Remain voters and looking at very practical issues like visa regulations for artists post Brexit. This is in regard of both EU artists and artists from elsewhere, who are currently disadvantaged. We will be contacting the Department of Exiting the EU with our proposals. We have a mission statement, the last few lines of which reads, We want to continue to live and work in a society that, even when the decisions to be made are difficult, respects democracy as our most important value. A country that is tolerant and politically independent, innovative in its art and ideas, reaching out and welcoming to the world. We are Artists for Brexit.

If you’re an artist and you want to get on with the future, no matter how you voted, you should think about joining our growing network. There is work to be done so that artists can get the best deal out of Brexit, and Britain post Brexit, gets to see wonderful artists and their work, from the EU and the rest of the world. Get in touch on Twitter here. 

 

 

 

 

How Did It All Go So Right? Labour, Brexit, and the Arts

It was 1983, I think, South London. As usual, I was in the front row of the audience. On the stage behind the canteen table were Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, and someone I’d never seen before, on such an esteemed platform. He was young and tatty, I thought, some social worker or polytechnic lecturer there to tell us about his strike. The rally was dominated by Benn’s oratory, in particular on his increasingly chosen subject of the Common Market. It was he argued, merely a cartel for capitalists, a means to maximise profit, one enormous  market designed to offset overproduction and to which all else, democracy, the power of national parliaments, the very existence of national sovereignty would be subordinate. It all sounded a bit overstated I thought, but rallies are often part the utopia and part the apocalypse, and I was quick to get to my feet and applaud. This was a full decade before the emergence of UKIP and nine years before the EEC became the EU. Opposition to the European cartel then was a given on the left, even among the soft left of the Tribune Group. At that time, there were four million unemployed and it was understood that this was no tragedy but merely a tactic, a government policy to instil fear in those in work and restraint in their trade union representatives. And it worked like a charm.

Benn

Resurrect Benn today and he would describe the free movement of labour in similar terms; as a means to weaken the bargaining power of labour in relation to capital par excellence. Thatcher’s mass unemployment of the early eighties was temporary, he’d argue, but the EU’s reserve army of labour is limitless and permanent. He would point out that it is far from a coincidence that wages in the UK have fallen faster in recent years than anywhere in the EU other than Greece; it is in fact in EU terms a success story, because that is its raison d’etre. That, the stubborn low productivity and the casualisation of the UK workforce are symptomatic of the condition: why invest in workers or machinery, why give them a permanent contract, or any kind of security, when there is always another worker behind in the queue? Why train apprentices at all when the time served can be enlisted from elsewhere? The EU’s case, Tony Blair’s case, is that the international workforce brings skilled labour straight to your door, already trained, highly motivated, increasing profits and therefore investment. And he’s right, it does. But Benn would also be right in saying, because the labour supply is endless, wages never get to catch up. 1983 is here to stay he’d say, and it’s become known as the ‘gig economy’, as if we were all doing stand-up routines just for a chance to be a compere. That Benn and Blair are both right about the economics of the EU is no contradiction. As anyone who has a copy of Marx for Beginners will tell you, there isn’t one economy, there’s two; one for capital, another for labour.

Benn and Bennism is dead and buried, and the man whose jumper didn’t reach to his wrists or his waist that day, the newly elected Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t quoting his mentor anymore. I queued for an hour in Leeds during his leadership campaign, there must have been more than two thousand in the hall waiting for him, and when he hunched in, with a self-effacing smile and a beige sports jacket, the seated joined the standing in applause. At last…at last, something was happening. The EU came up briefly in his speech. And if EU membership isn’t working for working people, we’ll look at our membership. It was almost an aside, he took a hopeful double take at the audience to see how it had gone down; at least I clapped. Few anticipated that within twelve months the question would be answered for him, or that the reaction of the Labour Party to the referendum result, would be what it has been; so confused, debilitated, and frightened.

I had been in and around the left and the trade union movement for many years before and after 1983. I re-joined the Labour Party a few years ago under Ed Miliband and went to my last meeting shortly after the Leave vote. The room was packed with new members and the atmosphere was a mixture of sombreness and hysteria. When I tried to tell people why I had voted Leave I was booed, there was no way I was going to get to an anecdote about Benn and Corbyn. Elsewhere, former comrades have called me ‘Tory Scum’ and predictably of course, a racist. That was my last day as a member, my last meeting, and the most telling contribution in that room was someone saying how sorry he felt for the people who voted Leave, because it is they, the poor, misguided, taken in, working class people who would suffer the most. I think he even used the word, ‘pity’. I have heard this ethic expressed a lot recently from people who actually believe themselves to be socialists and my best riposte is a family anecdote.

I was fourteen, it was half term, my father came in the backdoor whilst I was having lunch in the kitchen with mum. ‘What are you doing home?’ she asked. My father worked in a London Transport bus garage and was a T&G shop steward. ‘We walked out,’ he said. ‘I came across this plumber in the toilet and asked him what union he was in, and he said he wasn’t in one, so we called the garage out. I’d warned the gaffers about this before.’ My mother was worried, ‘They’ll sack you for that.’ He laughed back. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’ A London Transport garage of several hundred workers went home at noon because the man fixing the tap wasn’t in a union, so wasn’t paid the union rate. I know to some of you it sounds archaic and possibly terrifying, but it was the mid-seventies and the gloves were off, and our class, my class, had power and the confidence to use it. It was Scargill and Gormley, mess with us and we’ll turn your lights off during Horse of the Year Show. We had each other’s backs and didn’t hang about for postal ballots. We were yet to be defeated, thereafter humiliated. The Labour Party was about working people representing themselves, politics something you did, not just something that is done to you. I became my father’s son, was never happier than on a picket line and would far sooner have someone’s contempt than pity for voting to leave the EU. People imagine that because the unions have been emasculated that the conflict between capital and labour no longer exists, ‘the end of history.’ It remains unresolved, its just invisible because one side has a triumphant position, nearly all the time. The Brexit vote? That’s a bus garage walking out and they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Kes 2

Corbyn’s leadership notwithstanding, the Labour Party and the left I have left behind is unrecognisable to that which I joined in my teens in the late seventies; unrecognisable to itself. Yes, I have changed and so has the world, but the left is so perpetually realigning itself it is not even easy to define it any more, let alone sign up to it. Socially and culturally it is middle class and managerial. It feels sorry for people yet at the same time wants to police them. It does not believe in commonality, instead it makes a fetish of skin-deep differences. The denigration, snobbery and abuse towards Leave voters, particularly working class Leave voters, overwhelmingly comes from the ranks of the Party and its supporters. Most of them desire to see the biggest democratic mandate of UK history, ignored. Not even Atlee got 52% of a 72% turnout in 1945 and he changed the country a lot more than leaving a free trade outfit. You can hear Labour supporters on Radio Four arguing that the elderly should have the vote taken off them. Not only are they not even democrats in any book I’ve ever read, this is the stuff of the hard right or the Stalinist left and Corbyn should take them in hand but doesn’t.

life support

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intellectually, and that is probably a compliment too far, many have fallen down a relativist rabbit hole and re-emerged to change places as frequently as the Mad Hatter at his tea party possessed by his logic. Simply because Trump is opposed to Iran they are sympathetic to the Islamic Republic. They can’t even bring themselves to support the women risking life and liberty for taking off head scarves. They are frightened that doing so might either alienate Salafists here, or perhaps encourage a similar movement in the UK. And what would they do with that? They don’t even know what to do with the radical nature of Brexit, are scared of it, cannot comprehend its meaning. Many simply voted Remain because Nigel Farage led the Leave campaign;  he having no business being allowed the space to do so.

hatter

It is perfectly easy these days to find Labour Party members or supporters who are sympathetic to, if not supportive of: Scottish Nationalism (because it’s anti the British state, and anti-English); Hezbollah (because it’s against Israel); Islamic terror (because it’s against western imperialism); the House of Lords (because it might block Brexit); the banning of newspapers, public speakers, plays, books and paintings (because they disagree with them or they might offend someone they feel sorry for). Identity politics has replaced class, has replaced serious ideas. Labour was once ‘the hope of the world.’ Now it’s the cause of a long list of competing minority groups of everybody except of course, Stan from Doncaster; an oppression layer cake at the Hatter’s party. The prospect of a Corbyn/Momentum government is not exciting to me, it’s doesn’t feel like the march of Solidarity in Poland, it has the feel of something more ominous.

Hylas

If my divorce isn’t amicable, the feeling is mutual. And I don’t see myself running off-hand in hand with the right either. Another five years of austerity is barely imaginable. The queue at my local food bank tails back round the outside of the church. I want the market out of education and other public services, but I also want more democracy not less, greater freedom of expression not a censorious culture that tip toes around the professionally offended. Though no longer a joiner, I recently came across artists4brexit, a group of artists positive about a politically independent Britain and even reaching out as they say, to Remain voters who respect the mandate. There are some terrific writers and artists involved, some who voted Remain, and it’s a relief to be away from the vitriol and among people who believe art should be part of society, not apart from it. Whilst 52% of the largest turnout in a quarter of a century voted Leave, in a recent survey 96% of artists were opposed to leaving the EU. What does that tell us about the relationship between the arts and the people in this country? The arts scene is pre-occupied with identity politics, half the time that’s all the poem, the play is about. There’s not much narrative, insufficient craft, just an expression of the author’s identity. Everyone in the room talks about diversity yet everyone thinks alike. Political correctness is killing art, but then that’s the point of it. Increasingly I  don’t define myself by politics, and never by the chains of my ‘identity’, but rather by what books and ideas have captured me of late. We are what we read, think and do, the difference we make to the world, not just the way we came into it.

world turned

I’m about to start work on a youth theatre project with the children of serving soldiers and then hopefully a community play on the English Civil War, for which I’ve been re-reading Christopher Hill’s magnificent The World Turned Upside Down. It is a subject that has drawn me all my reading life and ultimately what determined my decision to vote Leave. I didn’t do it because of what Tony Benn or anyone else said, or what was written on the side of a bus. I did it because the fight for ordinary people to have a say in how they are governed in this country, is at least a four hundred year old struggle, arguably beginning with the Levellers in 1645. It was followed by those who fell at Peterloo, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. It is a struggle that isn’t finished yet and we, we that are just passing through, are insignificant and brief custodians of all that has been hard-won before we were born. We have no right to give up, any portion of that sovereignty that people gave their lives for, to an oligarchy in Brussels, in exchange for a shorter queue at the airport, a special offer on the Chardonnay, or even yes, our employment. Democracy for me, is as near to sacred as it gets. The Maoris say we walk into the future backwards, looking behind us for guidance from our ancestors. Well I voted Leave because Winstanley and Milton, Shelley and Mary Wolstencroft, Fergus O’Connor, Sylvia Pankhurst and Tom Mann, all said I should. And turning to look the other way, there is still much more freedom to be won.

My poetry collection First Fleet is available from Smokestack Books. You can find out more about my work at my website.

James Ruse: the first white Australian settler.

My last blog post on ‘1788 and all that; poetry and the First Fleet’ has had some very welcome attention from two descendants of the first ‘convict’ farmer in Australia, James Ruse. Partly in response to interest from Caroline Ruse and Samantha Dimmock Ruse I’m publishing the ‘two Ruse poems’ thus far from my sequence on the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. First it’s worth knowing something about the man in question.

I’ve been writing the sequence for the past year and then along comes Jimmy McGovern to steal my thunder with his TV series Banished except he doesn’t, because he writes screen drama and I write poetry and fortunately for me he has avoided many of the key figures in the settlement, including James Ruse. Twenty three year old James Ruse (spelt ‘Roose’ ‘Ruce’ elsewhere in records) was sentenced to death at Bodmin Assizes in July 1782 for “burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Thomas Olive and stealing thereout 2 silver watches, value 5 pounds.” The sentence was transmuted to seven years transportation and in some ways the Cornish farm-hand’s story can be said to mark the beginning of European colonisation of the continent.

At that time the transportation business was running into difficulties on account of the American War of Independence. So, like many others James spent several years on a prison hulk on the Thames, five in fact. This meant that by the time the British decided to use New South Wales and he reached Botany Bay, officially he only had another year of captivity ahead of him. As far as the Governor was concerned this was a moot point.

James it is claimed was the first ashore in January 1788, carrying on his back to the beach the officers from a long boat. At the establishment of the settlement the Governor gave the former tenant farmer responsibility for ‘Cove Farm’ at the site of the present botanical gardens. It failed and starvation threatened the settlement. Ruse’s time was up but the Governor refused to provide papers for his journey home, offering him instead farmland along the Parramatta River. After fifteen months Ruse announced that he and his wife Elizabeth whom he married in 1790 were now self-sufficient in food, and their farm formed the nucleus of a small community of farmers who helped feed the settlement and while technically still convicts, enjoyed considerable freedom and later had other convicts assigned to work for them. In April 1791 he got his liberty and the deeds to his farm. The Crown apart, the first white person to own land on the continent of Australia. There is now an agricultural college in his name in Parramatta. Comments on the poems always welcome.

Fated
Susannah Ruse, Bodmin Assizes, July 29th 1782

James down there, handsome, filthy from gaol.
Caught in the silversmith’s house in the night,
two watches in his pocket, cheese in his mouth.
In front of a judge now, chin stuck out.

Married me in Lawhitton,
Lizzie already twisting in my belly.
She’s a prowling cat. Hasty James,
has an ocean of fields to teal now.

The pushed aside, eldest child is hanged,
reprieved, transported seven years.
I’ll not roar like others in the gallery, and he
no sadder than our wedding night, his lips write

wait for me. Gawky James, farmhand
with a farmer’s family to feed, I said
the silversmith would have a pistol.
One watch would have done wouldn’t it?

James Ruse face like Growan clay,
will pull a plough in his burgling clothes,
labouring right through our nights
as he crosses off his days.

Redemption
James Ruse at his farm, Rose Hill, Parramatta River, December 1791

I James Ruse now of Parramatta
ten miles up-river of the famine
have harvested two hundred bushels from thirty acres,
have served my sentence.

The farm hand from Launceston
has fed convicts and marines alike,
ploughed out his life priced at two silver watches
at Bodmin Assizes.

I carried his Lieutenant to the shore,
grand and sparkling on my back,
I James Ruse, the first to face the land
dreamed of Cornwall

where the grit stone tore the skin
between my fingers till my hands
bled silver, harsher than the grasses
of the Parramatta.

One day the Governor will go
and I will continue to plant and grow.
I have my eyes on the Hawkesbury River,
on horses and hogs.

1788 And All That: Poetry and the First Fleet.

ff blogBanished 2

In December last year I made an application to Arts Council England to write a collection of poetry, concerned in the main with the first convict settlement in Australia in 1788. It paid off; I got the grant, which just leaves the writing part. In the application I promised a blog to all and sundry, so here is an early glimpse of a few poems and an invitation to leave a comment on the work and the concept of re-telling that historic endeavour through imagined poetic voices.

I began writing the poems last May when I was in Sydney. I’d read Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’ and Tom Keneally’s ‘The Commonwealth of Thieves’. After Hughes one wonders what there is left to say on the subject but what Keneally does is spotlight the first two years, ‘the starvation years’ of the settlement and in particular, the uncertain lives of individual convicts, marines, officers and Aboriginal people who make up this absorbing drama that isn’t the story many believe it to be. But Keneally only goes as far as a historian dares and I wanted to see the characters actualised and more than anything, I needed to hear them. In some cases that was not difficult to do. The transported Cornish watch thief turned settlement farmer James Ruse soon began to boast of his achievement to me having, fed convicts and marines alike/ploughed out my life priced at two silver watches/at Bodmin Assizes.

Initially I set out to tell the history of the first years of the settlement with quite a cast. I’d read every journal by officers and surgeons, noted their diet, the Aboriginal tribes encountered, the climate and the soil. A sequence of six was published in the last issue of Prole Journal which has been encouraging. What I have subsequently realised is that I also must go deeper rather than wider, to fewer characters about whom we know less or little. So, I strive to tell their mostly imagined stories through several rather than a dozen or more imagined voices. That way we may still get a picture of the wider experience in what was called New Holland. If I only achieve a sense of the personal experience of long ago extinguished voices that will be enough. Arts Council England have also funded a very patient mentor in poet and teacher Sarah Corbett who reminds me that the master I am writing for is poetry not history. This week sees the first instalment of Jimmy McGovern’s BBC television First Fleet drama Banished. Likewise he will no doubt do his job and serve his audience well. I only hope that his drama makes it more likely that people will want to read poetry concerned with 1788 and all that. Below, meet seventeen year old Jane Fitzgerald, a west country convict, seaman Jacob Nagle and Bennelong, the indigenous Australian who came to London when the first Governor returned.

Badlands
Jane Fitzgerald, Sydney Cove February 1788

Just the shine off them, the blackberries of home.
Bread dipped in butter, and chestnuts and eels.
My mouth is sore from fancying.

But I am not at sea now. I have my rations
without the pleasure of marines. They are ill-tempered.
Vermin won’t leave them be.

One who knew me on the Charlotte
struck another for two words to me.
He’s to be lashed for that. Won’t know his coat from his back.

After that I will go into the woods
lie all night in the dews with a highway robber.
A mutinous man.

We make free out here, of the land and the sea,
of each other. Marriage means nothing.
Seven or eight die each day.

There is talk of taking men to some island
weeks east. So red and rocky the earth
so fevered men behave.

They watch the lightning off the bay,
or look behind the camp up-river,
to China they say.

Healing
Jane Fitzgerald receives twenty five lashes for disobedience, March 1789. 

I only talked with him. We like to talk with each other;
our corner in the shade. But Bloodworth the brick-master,
the henhouse sneak, has folk flogged now, easy as the Major.

William went to plead but mister Tench said
I have written the sentence down. William said,
count every second stroke Jane.

I couldn’t count after five. I pressed my face
into the tree like it was my mother’s skirts,
Bloodworth shouting damned bitch from the crowd.

I cried so I saw my daughters in Bristol.
The girls are taller, waist high to their father.
Their faces are clean, their hair shines, their mouths shut bravely tight.
When it stops we walk to my hut. My eldest holds my hand.

Women are separate from the men now.
We have our own fires and places.
But William is allowed, he nurses me.
His narrow fingers, soft as water make me sleep.
I dread the flies that’s all. Their footsteps along my wounds,
the shiver of their eggs.

William is no soldier. His uniform hangs off his shoulders,
he is young, taunted and ordered by all others.
But he brings me the healing leaves,
sets down his musket, reaches for me.
I will sew his torn sleeves.

 

Mercy
Seaman Jacob Nagle on board the Sirius, October 1788

Seamen are not convicts.
The way the continent has it
positons are ice islands, ebbing, slipping.

Convict, marine, Governor, seaman
are false landfalls
crawled upon, starved, whipped.

A native sits at the Governor’s table
while we are taken with scurvy
scudding the Horn in search of supplies.

Behind us every ghost lives a week
on five pounds of flour, four of pork
two pints of pease.

Whales are about us soaking the deck.
In the watch we have but thirteen left,
that with the carpenter’s crew.

Tied below the third lieutenant screams
Tip all nines and we’ll see
if she rises for a set of dammed rascals.

We saw land but three miles off.
The captain brought his charts on deck.
He overhauled them. We saw surf,

trees, hills there were, brush and woods.
A man died in sight of it.
Then it vanished. The Cape Flyaway.

I have my ring, my buckles.
If we reach Table Bay I’ll trade my seamanship,
return no more to Sydney Cove.

Bennelong in London
Bennelong after the death of his friend Yemmerawanne, Eltham May 1794

Father you stole me, tied me,
made my tongue turn like yours.

While our words mixed like colours Be-anga,
another man took my woman across the shore.

I paid you back with the spear, I had to.
Your forgiveness carried me across the black seas to here.

I have not met your King, I have met your Isabella
who has nursed me, tried to save my friend

Yemmerawanne. I made a ceremony alone for him.
I am invisible now, lazy as the moon.

There are men under bridges who cannot read the stars.
Some will come home on ships, some strangled where they are.

Once we were like long ago, when all
had been made, yet all was in darkness.

I shall be home when the Emu is in the sky.
Then I will leave my English clothes for good,
but keep a handkerchief.