Ranting poetry and politics at the British Library

This video from Britain is called Tim Wells – Pickles Poem.

By Roxanne Escobales in England:

The word on the street: 35 years of volatile verse

Monday 8th june 2015

Ranting rhymes and political poetry broke the usual silence of the British Library last month. ROXANNE ESCOBALES explains

AN ANONYMOUS self-appointed critic once wrote: “Is it poetry? Shame on you” on the cover of a Poetry Library copy of Rising, the ‘zine stuck together by poet Tim Wells for the past 22 years.

One man’s trash talk is another man’s high praise. Wells photocopied the defaced copy and ran it as the cover of the next issue of Rising, whose slogan is “Tough on poetry. Tough on the causes of poetry.”

For him, the seemingly harsh criticism fell boot-step in line with Rising’s ethos. The seed for the zine was planted in the early 1980s, when Wells and pockets of young working-class white people — mainly men — and West Indian immigrants discovered that disaffection and poetry gave them an outlet for their frustrations.

Then, punk and reggae ruled the stage. Ranting and dub poets warmed the crowds.

These were Margaret Thatcher’s rebellious bastard children who she would rather have kept locked in the country’s cellars that were the council estates and crumbling immigrant ghettoes of urban Britain. But kids will be kids. They fell out of the dole queues, refusing to stay put, and exercised their right to speak out at the injustices they saw happening in the world around them.

Now, the conference hall of the British Library — where good boys and girls sit still with their hands folded in their laps — seemed an unlikely setting to host a panel discussion on the very messy, very strident spoken word scene of 35 years ago.

But host it they did, and a huge crowd showed up to hear Talking Liberties, a panel discussion that is part of Wells’s Stand Up and Spit London series of events celebrating ranting poetry. Last year he began documenting and blogging about the scene where he got his start.

“When I read an angry poem by a young person, I’m happy,” Wells told the audience.

One supposes, with the British Library’s blessing, it must now be relegated to cultural history. But the previous week’s general election and Conservative Party win unwittingly set the scene, demonstrating the timelessness of words that speak truth to power.

An audio track of Garry Johnson’s heavily cockneyed The Young Conservatives, which opened the night, could easily have been written the day after the election: “Just like the days before the war/ the Tory party still stands for/ mass unemployment and poverty/ a them-and-us society/ with no free press to speak the truth/ only the voice of Tory youth.”

This video is called Garry Johnson – The Young Conservative.

The next recorded poem by Wiltshire-born Steven “Seething” Wells (no relation to Tim) told his tale of getting busted for drugs by the police: “It’s pigs that should be muzzled.” Now, as before, it’s a line young people can recognise, a forebear to the 2011 riots that blazed first through London and set off a conflagaration of anger after an unarmed man in Tottenham, Mark Duggan, was shot and killed by police.

The global nature of modern communications testifies to the Western underclass’s continued persecution at the hands of the police — in Ferguson, in Baltimore.

Next up, a recording of the Jamaican dub poet Michael Smith’s testimony that people of colour get stamped under foot in the white West captivated the audience: his rhythmically conversational “Mi Cyaan Believe It,” delivered in thick patois.

Smith, who lived in Brixton in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was stoned to death in Jamaica after heckling a powerful political candidate, wrote of his community having to take jobs equivalent to picking up dog shit and be grateful for it.

This was not their mothers’ poetry. This was the poetry of the streets.

That no female poet featured in the audio offerings was made up by two women in the four-person panel discussion. Alongside Wells on the stage sat former punk impresario, commentator and critic Garry Bushell, Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore and stand-up poet and radio personality Salena Godden. The cultural historian Matthew Worley chaired the discussion.

“People like Michael Smith used words as an instrument,” said Suzanne Moore, who became interested in the scene through the dub poets.

“Words belonged to you. For a working-class person to be told the language is yours — there was a huge sense of belonging. It wasn’t about class, it was about access.”

The friction of change in that era let off sparks. Disaffected punks mingled with marginalised West Indian immigrant communities. It forged the beginnings of multicultural Britain. But like childbirth, it was painful.

“It was an incredibly political time,” said Bushell. “There were a lot of disaffected working-class kids. They were very dangerous times. A lot of issues were the same as they are today: no prospects, no future. But there was far more street fighting than there is today.”

Wells described how “young people then had no internet. There were only four TV stations and a lot less to do. If nothing was going on, you made things happen.”

And so the DIY spirit of the era spawned mixed crowds at youth clubs. Independent record labels released music that established labels wouldn’t touch. There were photocopied fanzines filled pages with poetry, diatribes and subversive comics — which Wells has spent over a year collecting for Stand Up and Spit.

It’s not a unique hallmark of the Thatcher years for youth subcultures to self-organise, to find and speak to underserved audiences.

“We live in the future now,” said Godden. “Poets put things on YouTube. They’re angry, and they’re using social media to speak out.”

That the ranters and dub poets of 35 years ago blazed a trail is undeniable. Today spoken word poets with thick regional accents like south Londoner Kate Tempest — winner of the Ted Hughes Award, Mercury Prize nominee and collaborator with the Royal Shakespeare Company — sit comfortably side-by-side with laureate-level poetry, and you can even hear Tempest’s work on the BBC.

In 2014 the Poetry Society selected Tempest as one of the Next Generation Poets. That would have been unthinkable to Wells and his peers.

“The Poetry Society hated us; I mean really hated us,” said Wells. “But we persevered. Now we’ve kicked the door down.”

Young working-class ranters and dub poets wrote in their own margins, and had nothing to lose by standing up and spitting out their words. It just took 35 years for the Establishment to listen.

The Stand Up and Spit festival is ongoing at venues around London. For full event information and to buy tickets visit www.speaking-volumes.org.uk/sus.

2 thoughts on “Ranting poetry and politics at the British Library

  1. Duggan was murdered by MI5, as a sacrificial pawn as a result of legislation reducing police force as a result of the diminishing crime activity in Britain, the police needed to create a incident to inflame the racism and to attack the working class, their is footage of individuals who had guns these set up photos were all part of police made for propaganda for the media, the police stood by whilst the crowds set light to buildings to allow the disorder to enforce police being seen as a need to curtail any reduction of police powers, what this shows is how ruthless the establishment will go to in maintaining control, some may remember another man shot and killed in a London tube station by police, for running, both these individuals were not of Anglo Saxon appearance, this added to these individuals being of a more expendable human beings.
    The British establishment stuck in the vestiges of historical circumstance of a history of long standing violence are unable to move on its more recent colonization of physical violence which continues to this day relatively unabated, with police violence, the fact that charges against police reflects the political reality of establishment in holding power, a feature of power is the militarization that is demanded by establishment to obtain resources from those countries who are unable to defend themselves as seen today in the Middle East, is all part of colonization at work today, as I write the TV sends out the message of scare mongering and terrorism and how the government is to protect its citizens from terrorists, in the main the problem stated by western governments as being motivated by religion as opposed to colonization of the destruction and theft of resources of the Third world, now referred to as emerging countries? what this means is profiteering from repression of the third world labor.


  2. Pingback: British ranting poetry, 1980-2015 | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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