Review: Simon Armitage at the Brontë Parsonage Museum

The Unaccompanied

Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied. London: Faber and Faber

Simon Armitage (2017) Mansions in the Sky. Branwell Brontë Exhibit.Bronte Parsonage Museum. Haworth, West Yorkshire.

They say you should never meet your heroes but upon hearing the The Brontë Parsonage Museum was hosting Simon Armitage, it was hard to resist. After greedily releasing two collections of poetry this week, his exhibit on Branwell Brontë, the ‘fail son’, opium-addicted, Brontë brother was also opened. His reading dealt with the complexity, speed and inequality of modern life, set against the background of West Yorkshire’s rolling Pennine hills. The eccentricity and telluric quality of Armitage’s writing was juxtaposed with the dizzying experience of the modern metropolis. You came away with a sense that this was a poet who, after translating and playwriting for many years, had come back to his stomping ground with a political point to prove.

Armitage filled the silences between his poems with the improvised wit we’ve come to expect from his prose works. Gig (2008), All Points North (1998) and Walking Home (2013) were written with what he describes as his ‘bleak sense of humour’. Yet he always manages to somehow keep it serious enough to avoid the trap of gimmick. Armitage typically combines hilarity with the dry and the dismal. ‘The Poets Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party’, full of innuendo, is the stand out funny one of this collection. However, The Unaccompanied also demonstrates Armitage’s ability for a more systematic social commentary.

Reading in soft Huddersfieldian tones, he juxtaposes the rich with the poor, the rural with the urban and the tragedy with the farce. Armitage himself described the work as a ‘recession collection’, a ‘sociological’ recantation of British society since 2008. Or at least post-crash British society as he saw it through his gritty, Northern Realist lens. You can see where he’s coming from. It’s easy to think that in a decade where wage growth has been at its lowest since the invention of the steam engine, poetry is a self-indulgent piss-around for the moneyed-classes. Yet it remains as vital as ever.

Beginning with ‘Thank You For Waiting’, a satirisation not only of airlines but of the inequality engendered by neoliberal capitalism, he was subtle yet bitingly political. He amusingly portrayed the segregation of air travel by social class in the United States through the medium of substances from ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ to ‘Sweat’ and ‘Dust’. ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’ speaks of a young woman who will always ‘hold the hand of cancer till the line goes flat’ even as the social and the political, indeed history itself, works against her. Risking being a ‘Jilted bridge of public transport’, she slogs every day to counter the ‘humanitarian crisis’ the Red Cross reported in British hospitals. The poem defended those who wear their NHS ‘fob watch’ as ‘a medal to your breast’. It vindicated those still left with the faith to fight for the NHS, even as successive governments have pulled the rug from under it. The audience’s collective murmur of miserable agreement capped off the poem, showing how well Armitage has managed to keep his finger on the public pulse.

In a sense, The Unaccompanied speaks for what has come to be known since Brexit as the communities left behind. That said, he’s not simply representing the Brexiteer. Rather his attention is on those left behind, socially and politically, in general. The clue here is in the title of the collection. We’re taken on a journey through almost anonymous West Yorkshire villages, to Poundland where we meet ‘a duty manager with a face like Doncaster’. Then there’s Wakefield Westgate railway station which recently moved, almost as if it was sick of being neighbours with the murderers and rapists that inhabit Wakefield’s high security prison. Armitage recounts his meeting with serial killer Robert Maudsley, which took place in earshot of the platform announcements, in ‘Solitary’. What comes through is Maudsley’s banality as well as his empty existence ‘in his glass case’. We are left pitying the life of those detained in solidarity confinement, if not Maudsley himself. Here we find that the miserable, macabre and mundane are transmuted by Armitage into the sublime.

His commentary on modernity steps it all up a notch. The Unaccompanied’s enigmatic and ambiguous cover itself is worth thinking about. When asked about it, he recounts and explains the numerous and conflicting interpretations of the ‘cosmonaut’ set against the background of ‘embryonic pink’. Kept alive by a mechanic umbilical cord, it’s easy to relate to this anonymous, almost post-human figure, left stranded by the machinery of his own making. ‘The Emergency’s’ enigmatic last line ‘What is it we do now?’ is reminiscent of Marx’s definition of modernity: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. Perhaps the collection should be read as a search for solidity in a world of fluid and flux. ‘To-do-list’, the fastest poem he read, attests to this. A whirlwind of errands where to eat and breathe is ‘optional’, the poem’s theme of speed only seeks to reflect that of contemporary life. Similarly, ‘Old Boy’ reads like a rant from a Dad struggling to keep up with the news of the day, never mind technological advances. Yet we can relate to how the complexitity of modern life can make us feel like ‘a monkey with a jigsaw’. To appreciate the poem’s frustration fully, it’s worth listening to a fast-paced version from Armitage’s band, The Scaremongers, on the track ‘From the Shorelines of Venus’.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Branwell Brontë, Armitage curated an exhibit at the Brontë Parsonage Museum where we adjourned after the reading. Even in these poems he wrote for Branwell Brontë, Armitage can’t escape the 21st century frame. This would seem anachronistic if it wasn’t so plain funny. In one fail swoop Armitage bounces from Wordsworth and the Brontës, to The Smiths and Premier League football. ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ recounts a letter Branwell sent to William Wordsmith, who was more than uninterested in writing back. Armitage can’t resist mixing the low and highbrow and he seems to work to cultivate an ‘everyman’ reading voice. Contemplating his self-worth, a 21st century version of the Brontë brother pontificates about Manchester United shelling out £85million for Paul Pogba. ‘Wallet’ continues the theme, empty but for a condom and coke-covered credit card, Branwell’s character is brought to life through the prism of 21st century.

Armitage’s modesty and humble beginnings in provincial West Yorkshire can disguise the intellectualism that lays behind his poetry. His translations of poems from Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages show how well-read his. No doubt he would deny this. He is keen to create space for interpretation of his work that is safe from academic literary theory. While it garnered a few laughs, his joking cry of ‘help’ at the prospect of giving a lecture at Oxford can’t help but seem insincere. Indeed, his lectures at Oxford reveal him to be an avid and wide-ranging reader. The beauty and hilarity of Armitage lies in his ability to talk about the Odyssey and Poundland, Brontë and Pogba as if they were one and the same. His subtle yet germane social commentary in this new collection shows he’s still got a few aces up his sleeve.

Armitage sits on the bed in Branwell’s Studio© at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth. Photographer: Simon Warner.

Armitage at the Bronte Parsonage

 

 

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Brexit: A Crisis of Democracy?

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Figure 1 Picture credit: Reuters, Victoria Jones/Pool.

Six months on and despite Theresa’s May insistence, nobody really knows what Brexit means. Unsurprisingly, as a leaked memo shows, the government doesn’t know what Brexit means. All that we do know is that we are getting it. For most, Brexit has meant confusion. The concept of democracy has been caught up in this confusing mess. When it comes to the British constitution, Brexit has opened can of worms. Mostly remain representatives were voted into parliament during the 2015 General Election. Yet Britain (England and Wales being the only home nations with majorities) voted for Brexit in 2016. Clearly this is something to do with First Past the Post which fails to proportionately represent public opinion and reduces everything to a two horse race. But it’s more than that. The referendum highlighted how differently we’ve come to use the same word, ‘democracy’, to mean lots of different things on this issue.

Close to home, we’ve seen the rise of direct democracy as a result of the referendum. Having won the referendum, Brexiteers are convinced the people have spoken. All we need to do now is get on with it. They support the Theresa May’s attempt to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision, which, if successful, could allow the government to circumvent a parliamentary vote on activating Article 50. After continually emphasising British parliamentary sovereignty through the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, Brexiteers have come full circle. Now Parliament, chock-full of Remoaners as it is, can’t be trusted to carry through the will of the people. For them, a metropolitan liberal elite with their love of parliamentary procedure and independence of the judiciary, are just getting in the way. The Brexit tabloid press, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express have been keen to push this line about a liberal elite as the ‘Enemies of the People’. Nigel Farage has followed suit, his ‘betrayal’ rhetoric comes eerily close to the Nazi’s stab-in-the-back-myth about World War I. Farage is himself an emobodiment of the failure of parliamentary democracy to deal with 21st century politics. He has shown that you can radically alter British politics without even being a Member of Parliament. In short, referenda attempt to represent the people by asking for a simple answer to a complex question.

On the other side, Remainers are keen to emphasise the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. Previously more than willing to delegate power to the undemocratic European Union, paradoxically, many Remainers now find themselves defending parliamentary sovereignty. Liberal Democrats, and various figures within the Labour party, from Owen Smith to David Lammy, have emphasised that the referendum was merely advisory and was not legally binding. Parliamentarians, elected to represent the people, should choose whether to activate Article 50, the assumption being that many would opt against it. Similarly, these Remainers also reserve the right to call a second referendum on Brexit, the idea being that the referendum didn’t reflect the will of the people in the way they wanted, so let’s give it another try. This may appear undemocratic if we follow the logic of direct democracy. Thus, we see that direct democracy and representative democracy are in conflict. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering many ‘Remoaning’ MPs sitting in strong Leave constituencies, Tristram Hunt for example, are flying electoral kamikaze missions. In short, parliament is a machine designed to mediate between the conflicting, contradictory and often contrarian opinions of the general public: a complex (and often unsatisfactory) answer to a complex question.

When the referendum was first announced, many on the continent assumed that Britain would set up local forums to debate Brexit. This deliberative form of democracy stresses the importance of informed debate. The idea being to ensure citizens knew what they were talking about, had heard opposing arguments and were in touch with public opinion generally. The basic point is that democracy is a process. Its vital values, like engagement and participation, have to be cultivatedand nurtured. It’s not just, like football, a results game. As the referendum played out, it became clear how foreign this continental idea is to British political culture, where the arena of debate tends to be limited to parliamentary chambers, television studios and the columns of the national press. Without localised forums and deliberations, it is unsurprising that on a national level, the debate was polarised and involved almost no nuance. In such a climate, democratic politics therefore becomes decided by personalities. These personalities tend to be media constructions: the result of good media management and spin doctors. As a result, the referendum campaign was framed in the media as David vs. Boris, the ultimate final decider of a schoolboy rivalry, as The Guardian’s results and analysis coverage exemplifies.

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Screenshot from The Guardian’s Results Coverage. Available –

We need some clarity about democracy. We need to move beyond the Brexiteer and Remoaner deadlock. We need to resolve the tension between direct and parliamentary democracy. Democracy is about people power. It is an ongoing process that doesn’t end with the result of an election or referendum. When it comes to Brexit, paradoxically, a European approach is in order. Working out what we want from Brexit will involve talking to each other, not just to our representatives in parliament, but on a local level. Yanis Varoufakis and John McDonnell were on the right lines when they toured Britain, setting up public meetings with space for dissent and discussion, arguing the case for a more radical, democratic Europe. Public engagements such as this need to become more commonplace to inform and politicize people. We need to improve the standard of debate, lift it out of the gutter, before we can get on with doing anything.