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 Bronte, the ‘fail son’, opium-addicted, Bronte 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 a more improvised form of the 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 Bronte 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 Bronte 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

 

 

Ken Clarke is right, it’s not surprising the public are switched off by elections

As the UK 2015 General Election approaches, we are barraged with a set of candidates who, as always, ‘preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry’, as the late Howard Zinn once commented. The unpopularity of such candidates has been reflected in voter turnouts in Britain, which have been on whole decreasing: less than two thirds of the electorate voted in 2010 yet that was the highest turnout in a general election of the 21st century so far. There is also an undeniable correlation across the country in recent years between low voter turnout and poverty. The party most harmed by this was Labour, Blair’s centrist coup in 1997 and the consequent 13 years of ‘Third Way’ politics caused Labour to lose 5 million working class voters and forced members to leave in droves. In the 2010 Labour received the lowest share of the popular vote since 1918 and Scottish Labour in 2015 has been described as being ‘in meltdown’.

One of the overall reasons for this is because people are totally disillusioned by the political system, elections are fought less and less over issues which matter to people and more and more over the personality of the leader. Even at the heart of the Establishment, we had Ken Clarke, Tory cabinet minister for Thatcher, Major and Cameron commenting in The New Statesman

‘The public debate and the media, which is becoming increasingly celebrity culture, rather hysterical, sensational, and reduces the whole thing to theatre. Everybody’s election campaigns are presidential, everything’s attributed to the party leader. What matters is how the party leader eats a hamburger and all this type of thing. I mean, it does switch the public off.’

Clarke’s analysis seems on point, elections more than ever are based on the style and the personality of the party leader. David Cameron was recently filmed by The Sun, most of the footage concentrated on the Camerons having their breakfast at No.10 while trying their hardest to appear like normal people. Similarly, The Daily Mail interviewed Samantha Cameron for a personal insight into their family life, another clear attempt to humanize and normalise the Camerons. This ‘celebrity culture’ which has pervaded into the election campaigns is a symptom of our broken political system which breeds this ‘theatre’ kind of debate.

Paul Krugman touches on the economic aspect of this ‘theatre’ in his article in the New York Times where he refers to the ‘misleading fixation of budget deficits’, both Labour and the Conservatives have accused one another of making ‘irresponsible’ funding promises. Moreover, over the last five years the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and much of the media have lectured us on the necessities of cuts while borrowing went up and the economy almost slumped into a triple-dip recession.

This is the dominant narrative Krugman was referring to –

“In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.”

Tories to match labour spendingBut this is simply not true. In 2007, George Osbourne said he would match Labour’s spending over the next three years, despite the fact that now he claims Labour overspent. Britain was nowhere near the so-called ‘Greek style-crisis’ and no other economy which borrows in its own currency was liable to such a crisis. Furthermore, the only reason the economy has now tenuously recovered is because Cameron held off reams of planned spending cuts. As Krugman points out-

‘if this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop’.Tories to match labour spending 2

While unemployment is decreasing, the jobs the coalition congratulates itself on creating amount to low-wage, low-skilled jobs and zero hours contracts. The ‘recovery’ narrative ignores the fact the coalition presided over the biggest decrease in average living standards for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the extremely rich, the so-called ‘wealth creators’, have benefited significantly and even received nonsensical tax cuts.

Unsurprisingly, this inequality comes at a price, The Telegraph and The Guardian reported that the life expectancy in Britain’s poorest areas is worse than Rwanda and on par with Botswana. This reality is completely ignored by the established narrative: ‘the recovering is working’, ‘we’re cutting the deficit’. A government could both cut the debt and improve living standards, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Considering the money spent on benefits for people who’re in poverty-paying jobs, surely making employers pay the living wage saves the Exchequer money and stops the public subsidising low-wage labour?

It’s clear this pervasive narrative has also been a distraction from the privatisation of the National Health Service which the coalition have successfully downplayed by referring to it as ‘reform’ or ‘reorganisation’. The Health and Social Care act of 2012 has allowed companies to bid for NHS contracts, the biggest of which in March 2013… was worth up to £780 million’. According to RT News, it ‘will see 11 private firms perform heart and joint surgery, carry out scans and provide diagnostic tests for patients from mobile medical facilities’. Among the companies engaged in bidding for contracts is Lockheed Martin, an arms producer. To add further salt to the wound, this has been carried out while cuts are taking place to public-run facilities. While there has been a lot of rhetoric from Labour on the NHS, the reality is that Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) implemented by New Labour also privatised large chunks of it under the guise of a ‘public-private partnership’. The public, perhaps quite rightly, doesn’t know who to trust. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US provides us with the perfect example of an expensive, inefficient and sub-standard health system run for private profit. In the States, those who can’t afford insurance can only receive treatment if they stay in Accident and Emergency, often for days on end, their family therefore is forced to stay with them to bring them food and care for them. Our politicians continue to push us further in that direction and away from most countries in the developed world.

Despite the important issues at stake, the childish squabbles refuse to cease, so you would be forgiven by me for thinking that it’s all just theatre.