Published by Culture Matters, Alan Morrison’s latest poetry collection ‘Shabbigentile’ summarises the current state of our nation, satirising the wastelands of asset-stripped Britain, where the Tories and the press work together to create the scapegoating pseudo-science of Scroungerology and the DWP’s weapons of brown envelopes are transposed as Salted Caramels. Review by Dave Russell
A synthesis of passion and political analysis. ‘Shabby-genteel’, describes the impoverished upper middle and upper classes. With his modification, Alan suggests bonding of Rabbi with gentile. He attacks ‘tunnel vision’, and reactionary attitudes to social mobility: “. . . the self-made man/Who’s helped himself up with invisible hand/Then kicked away the ladder . . .” Incisive rewrites/parodies of jingoistic odes demolish the façade of our ‘heritage’.
Viva Barista! indicts complacent café debate, in the spirit of Emiliano Zapata. The Espresso dispenser is ‘a Hydra’; coffee is the ‘poison of public opinion’. Wood Panel Parliament uses imagery of organic decay to mirror parliamentary corruption, and money-laundering.
Common Music – the ‘under-layer’ of music proclaims stark truth – reversal of the concept of reification: “commodities impressed upon us/Are . . . promoted instead of us . . .” Demagogues are hammered: “Brutal solutions marketed as miracle cures/With the quickness of quackery to obfuscate/Long-term impotence . . .”
The Battle of Threadneedle Street evokes Brexit: ‘the Royal Bank of Babel’s vacated altars’. Thatcherism resembled Tsarist Russia in its totalitarian brutality. Wood Panel Parliament – corruption is verminous: “Woodlice crawl out from the smouldering nooks . . .”
Thirties Rut – Clocks Back Britain refers to the Depression. Itemised right-wing propaganda is punctuated by the refrain: “Lies told for long enough become the truth they say . . .” A litany for the Brexiteers’ ‘Little England’ mentality – explored further in Blood of the Dole – on inadequate welfare provision for World War I wounded.
Times New Roman compares recent chaos with Nero’s complacency. Not Paternoster Square diagnoses Britain’s decay: “A cash-strapped Capital in spectral taxes,/Encrusts its subterranean arteries of punctured/Under-lungs with atmospheric residues . . .” Olympian struttings are set against the hobblings of the deprived and disabled. The poem celebrates a street occupation, targeting – “. . . A cash-strapped Capital in spectral taxes,/Encrusts its subterranean arteries of punctured/Under-lungs with atmospheric residues . . .”
Alan criticises fashionable Leftism: “Gradualist dusts — mothballed in Fabian platitudes . . . snookered Trotskyite/Resigner lenses, Bolshevik bifocals . . .” Evocative archaic terminology of ‘the great unwashed’. Protesters assemble in front of a venerated, but tarnished monument. Society’s palliatives are unmasked: “. . . a nation’s toxic upholstering on Antidepressants . . .”
The abuses of the world are enumerated and confronted: “Scrape salubrious asylum from valorised/Jerusalem’s sieving visitations — ” Organic politics: “prime sprawl of pawn-Brokered democracy’s Stockholm Syndrome…” Parallel between wartime bombing and wreckage of the Welfare State; inventory of evils such as ‘Bottle tots weaned on Methadone’s green milk —” plight of the homeless and the caring agencies: ‘. . . choked community outreach . . .’
Alan remains optimistic: “. . . a sea-change/Is brewing . . .” He delineates parasitism: ‘Capillaries siphoning patriotic profits offshore . . .’ Christ personifies the Homeless: ‘. . . Crown of thorns sculpted out of claim forms . . .’ He senses Britain’s imminent collapse: ‘one last royal hunt of sunset /Enterprise before this island’s capped to size . . .” Optimism survives through trust in ‘unevictable ideas’.
Ru-Ri-Tannia – (cf. Rule, Britannia) lampoons the ‘tin-pot kingdom’ of ‘little England’. Acerbic takes on prejudice: “Brussels sprouts bureaucrats all mashed up . . .” Echo of Swift’s Modest Proposal – iconic prophecy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. ‘Reputable authorities’ recall Hitler’s eugenics policies: “there does need to be some sort of final solution to the perennial societal problem of malingering incapacity . . .”
Drain the Swamp provides a US background – Trump and all. Salted Caramels suggests an all-too-feasible poisoning policy. The Pigeon Spikes – bird-scarers and instruments of laceration symbolise the oppression of the homeless – “. . . So man and pigeon cooperate . . . human head/And shoulders for perches, mangy pigeon/Plumage for feathered umbrellas . . .”
Kipling Buildings reappraises Rudyard Kipling’s If. For Alan, the subject is the sufferer rather than the doer. That theme is explored further in Work – propagandised in all its degrading, ‘dumbing-down’ aspects. Rudyard Digs makes cutting wordplay on virtuous blind excavation and sub-standard accommodation.
The Bricks of Henrietta Street celebrates Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, flourishing in the 1950s. “ . . . print-antidotes /To right-wing hegemonies are returning.” Claimant Christ compares the Claimant’s sufferings to Christ’s rejections during his lifetime. The powers that be ‘know not what they do’ – or do they?
The Problem with Jeremy relates Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ to his candour. “St. Jude” & the Welfare Jew unmasks the ‘free press’. “. . . the press keeps us/In perpetual presentness as a surplus/Populace of shopaholic schizophrenics . . .” The mental scenario reflects a backcloth of climatic disasters. He attacks “. . . Comfortable/Glumness in our bloated sofas.” St Jude, ‘the patron saint of lost causes’ is also the name for a curse, and a gale force wind. Waiting for Giro is a gloss on Samuel Beckett. How many have experienced the limbo of waiting rooms? Surmounting boredom through excess of it is an interesting concept.
Another Five Giants surveys the Welfare State, criticising the Beveridge Report. Beveridge admitted his ideology was ‘eugenic in intent’. “. . . its compassionate camouflage/Of gradualism . . . .” He referred to “Five Giant Evils” — Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor & Idleness”. Alan asserts otherwise: ‘Ignorance’ can ensue from poor schooling; ‘Idleness’ may not be self-imposed. The old giants/monsters of ‘Spite, Scrounger-Mongering, Stigma, Judgementalism and Resentment’ are replaced, in Corbyn’s terms, by ‘Neglect, Inequality, Insecurity, Prejudice and Discrimination’. He protested against the attitudes of Lloyd George, emphasising what happened to the poor, rather than any of their own choices. The formation of welfare structures is outlined, likewise their dismantling: “this beneficent safety net has been steadily/Unthreaded through the decades post-’79.” Occupational Health Doublespeak updates Orwellian prophecy, with lame excuses for benefit cuts and psychiatric closures; he lays bare unscrupulous privatisation – to ‘rationalise’ the system.
The Notes to the poem are impeccable. Shabbigentile is no ‘easy read’: it embraces unflinchingly the tortured complexities of the issues involved – radically challenging boundaries between ‘Literature’, ‘Poetry’, ‘Politics’ and ‘Economics’.