Followers of this blog and me in general will know I’ve been working on a long poem/theatre piece about riots and revolt. It’s a dual narrative set in 2011 and also in 1381 during the Peasant’s Revolt. When it’s finished it will be about 50 minutes long. I’ll be performing it at a few exciting festivals this summer. Here is the first 15 minutes. As you can see we’ve not got to any rioting yet, but there’s something rotten in the air. The 2011 narrative is written in ottava rima and the 1381 narrative in an Anglo-saxon/early English alliterative style, where 3 of the 4 stresses in each is alliterative. I’d love your thoughts on it:
2011, Part One
Let’s start our story in the present day,
well, cast your minds back, say a month or three,
before the heat of youth rampaged its way
down gap-toothed high streets – angry, cruel and free.
In Britain, where we’re keen they Have Their Say.
In Britain, with our Big Society.
Before the Sky News choppers churn and whirr
let’s listen to an average Friday’s burr.
So London first (why not?) that town’s a beast:
the mouths of Oxford Circus breathing out
a smoke of suits and buttered skin. Up east
horns honk at Shoreditch High Street, dickheads spout
abuse from vans; while underground they’re greased
with sweat and slapped on tubes where adverts tout
apologies from banks with shitty grins
or vitamins. A dearth of litter bins
mean right-wing rags accumulate on seats
parading cancer causes, ubermensch
and ghostly girls strangled on their own streets:
Found with one breast exposed, concern is drenched
in gory details, then reduced to Tweets.
What price a victim’s shame when you can quench
the idle curiosities of millions
preserve it all in columns of opinion?
And every front page headline sings the chorus
of Brookes and Coulson writhing on their swords
The media serpent playing Ouroboros:
it eats itself to fill the Stop Press boards.
The lengths they’ll go in order not to don’t bore us!
The depths they go for tit-bits for their hordes
of hateful kids, insatiable and callous
raised on Schaudenfreude, sex and malice.
But come now, it’s not late enough for that.
Meet Nick, a journalist, the measured type
his paper shuns the tabloid rat-a-tat
of scandal, lies, skullduggery and hype
or so they claim, though still they have their spats,
occasionally some doggerel and tripe,
but mostly they were good and Nick had dreamed
of writing for them since his early teens.
Which, I should say, were not that long ago
young Nick is young, I’m guessing twenty-four,
right now, he’s drinking in the Barley Mow
with mates. They’re idealistic, talking war,
Murdoch and Arab Spring but not for show
they’re galvanised by change and want some more.
They talk of ’81, of ’68
Tweet apathy to rights until its late.
Then half-sloshed in his room as grime core scrobbles
Nick bashes out a blog, all left-wing gristle
while bottles smash on Cardiff’s carless cobbles
and shirtless blokes shout fuming, mad epistles
(well, Coldplay songs) as post-work geezers gobble
kebabs while trying to protect their whistles.
A hundred farm boys piss down safety glass
a woman pulls her knickers out her arse.
As thirty-something birds in York alight
a train all wearing Shelagh’s Hen Do tees
a lipstick pink, they plough the muggy night
in search of sickly shots and DJ-ed cheese;
of hairy-chested lads who like a fight;
of somewhere dark to get down on their knees
and spill their liquored guts like summer rain
to clear them out so they can start again.
While up the road in Terrington Samantha
Trample runs her MP’s surgery
blue rinse brigade not fussed about the bankers
just gypsy sites and NIMBY-ism pleas.
A few congratulate or simply thank her
(she’s just been the made the junior secretary
for home affairs), life’s good, so say the polls
last one of these, and then she’s off on hols.
She glances briefly at her Twitter app
that nit-wit from The Guardian has spammed
her feed again with bolshy, pious crap
re her expenses. Christ, you’d think I’d scammed
the needy of their dinner. Trample taps
ineptly at the screen, Well I’ll be damned
if this will spoil my night. She presses block
@NickTheDigger’s angry missives stop.
In Acton town a print works shuts up shop
and lays-off fifteen staff, progress I know
inevitable these days, a fair cop,
we’re going digital, we have to sow
our future’s seeds on last year’s mangy crop.
But you tell that to Si who has to go
back home and tell his pregnant wife the news –
they’ve fifteen quid a week for food and booze.
So Si and her sit in the strip light hum
of rented kitchen, bills and calculator.
She makes the tea, he taps the keys and drums
an ink-stained finger, a tuna baked potato
goes cold, congeals as Simon thinks in sums:
Fat use that evening class, a waiter’s
all blokes like me can hope for now, he sighs
upstairs their two year old son wakes and cries.
Let’s pass through well-healed green Commuter Land
where limestone pargeting, resplendent oaks
and rugged elms all dutifully stand
as sentinels to very English blokes
and nice, well meaning ladies, their lives bland
and inoffensive, their well-worn remotes
their weapons in a war on awkward facts –
it’s not to do with us, we pay our tax –
and venture back up North beyond the border
past Hadrian’s symbolic little fence
up stream like Salmon witness the new order
in Holyrood rehearsing arguments
that if successful promise English Lords their
comeuppance, where the atmosphere is tense
where harmony and union are brittle
and social norms are set to fly like skittles.
Then soar on shallow winds round Glasgow schemes
where bus shelter glass prisms on a fist
its owner’s missus totters off, blood streams
like Merlot at a wedding down his wrist
he doubles like a marionette and screams
Y’fucking bitch through woozy cider mist
we follow the expletive from his mouth
into the balmy night and turn back south
to Manchester where scallies, trainer clad
and congregating in a Moss Side playground,
lob Panda Pops and swear and giggle. Lads
and lasses pissed on youth, they make their way round
the terraced neighbourhoods their mums and dads
once did their courting in. They too will stay round
here their whole lives. There’s some things never change,
so what then makes these kids appear so strange
to Mister Habit popping down the Spar?
He eyes them warily across the road:
a female shrieks then spits, it hits a car
a large male taunts another, who then goads
him back. There’s pushing, laughing, it’s bizarre
and Habit picks away at it like code
imagining their habitats, their mothers
he files it all for keeping under Other.
And prides like this are native all through Britain
observed from front room curtain-twitching hives
they’re creatures to be feared or so its written
in frothing slingshot journalese that thrives
on grainy CCTV stills that shit on
any notion that these children’s lives
resemble ours. They say their love is lewd
their tinny music noise, their morals skewed,
their language just a badly spelt perversion
of ours, their clothes nefarious, their manners …
Huh! What manners? These yobbos on excursions
to London with their whining homemade banners
who trashed the Centotaph. A sad inversion
of everything our boys fought for in Flanders!
And so the haughty column inches spool
’til chaps like Habit fear the local school.
And add to this the constant thrum of ads,
the black dog of consumerism barking,
a lack of jobs or training, absent dads,
their local playgrounds auctioned off for parking,
their protests shunned, no wonder they’re half mad
these kids like third world countries always sparking
chin-stroked debate that’s never acted on!
And so our camera pans to Clapton Pond
to street-light glow and Lisa Low who scuffs
her sorry way back home this Friday night
abandoned by Chantelle for Greg she cuffs
her runny nose, thinks Bitch, they’ll only fight
again, she’ll text by two. She’s had enough
of fickle mates, she clenches her fists tight
and ups her pace, the beats bead in her head
a pissy stairwell, key in lock, then bed.
But nasty secrets seep through paper walls
her slack-jawed stepdad laying down the law,
a gruff hiss: All she does is hang round malls
she’s finished school, it’s time she knew the score
she pissed, on drugs, most nights, she crawls
back home gone one, I want her our that door.
And Lisa thinks how many nights she’s cried
in here, it’s not as if she hasn’t tried
to get a job, it’s just that, well it’s hard
her mate who had a baby got a flat
ground floor, two bedrooms, with a little yard …
… and Tesco’s all that hiring, pay like that
won’t get her nix, it’s like she’s barred
by all those smug, well educated twats
from anything worth having and she’s scared
she terrified she’ll always been ensnared
in nights like these. Turns over, hunkers down
and bites her lip and hopes something will happen
as Simon, wide awake in Acton Town
stokes baby’s bump and prays something will happen
as Nick who’s reading Klein his sorrows drowned
dreams fresh revolt and wills something to happen.
For anything to happen and it will
the riots in their minds are set to spill.
1381, Part One
Let’s marry our modern tale with the medieval
perfectly appropriate given the pictures of mayhem
those cynical scenes, sickening and raw
that’ll soon dominate our dreary sunday dinners.
Let’s hark back with hindsight to a heinous epoch
a time when people perished with plague
when nasty was normal and opinion enough
to have you hung or hacked to bits by henchmen.
Ta-ra then rich and restful Blighty
and welcome to a warped and wicked Albion.
To Fobbing where the fucked-up feudal laws
had eased as they had everywhere in England
since plague had picked off peasants like tics
and entire territories had gone untilled.
Now the lucre-loving Lords were desperate for labour
and men could demand more money for their work.
In some cases these serfs were successful in getting
a better bargain from their bullying barons
but life was still lousy and their days too long.
And to top their terrors off taxes spiralled.
Simon Sudbury, insidious Lord Chancellor,
greedy for the groats of good, honest men,
imposed a perfidious poll tax on the people
which tripled over time to a tricky three groats.
A fellow called Bampton was sent to fetch it from Fobbing
one murky morning in the month of May
and what happened would haul history to this village.
Let’s watch it unfold with Will Waterer
a big-bellied, bawdy ploughman of a bloke
and his rosy-cheeked inamorata, Ros.
Usually Will was not one for worrying
he just pulled his plough and prayed on Sundays
in the lazy style of a simple soul.
He didn’t like liturgies and he liked Lords less
but he nodded now and again like a normal
so he could make his way home for mead and the missus.
But there’d been talk in the town before Bampton turned up
and this had thoroughly stuck in his thoughts:
Three groats! God, where would he get it?
These loonies in London had no idea about the labourer!
The females fetched them from the fields at ten
and Ros, with child, her robes rucked up
as she hiked up the hill, caused his heart
to beat like a battering ram in its bone cage.
Right then he’s pay any price to the politicians
just to scoop his scrumptious squeeze up and saunter off.
He hooked a hammy arm around her.
His mates mirrored him, thirty muddy men
and their wives wandering back to the wattle and daub
of Fobbing to face the fellow from London.
Thomas Baker, landowner and Bill’s boss
was it seemed for once willing to help his workers.
Solitary he stood in the Village’s central square
his clothes cut from a cloth far finer than his charge’s
and made a speech to the muttering mob as it amassed.
Good folk of Fobbing, he flapped his arms about,
giving the geezers good reason to giggle,
a corpulent collector is currently coming
to this very village to vigourously relieve you
of your hard won and well-deserved wage.
Pray, what’s this prick prattling on about now?
Will’s mate Larry laughed in his lug-hole,
He’s saying that sod from the city’s a shit
Larry was about to bother Bill with – What bloody sod?
when a crappy horn cried out across the houses
and the locals looked as one to see a little
rabble of raffish fellows riding horses
approaching in soft sunlight from the south.
Terrific, quipped Larry, let’s irk these idiots!
‘Til the tossers take off to some other town.
He purposefully pumped his palms together
and followed Baker and the other Fobbing folk
towards the well-to-do wankers from London.
We’ve come to collect on behalf of the King
three groats from every Englishman in this area.
said Bampton sneering on his snorting stead
his fingers louchly lingering over his lapels.
As reeve, Baker remonstrated, I refuse
it’s risible and ridiculous to expect these regular
fellows to find that sort of fee.
Bampton just humpfed, haughty and hostile
he was more than a match for the mummsy Reeve
he knew his brogue was better suited than Baker’s
to public speaking and the peasants felt pressured.
Will! hissed his wife, you’re well-liked here
you must say something to this sneering city boy
or we shall all have pay his pricy poll tax!
Now Will was not one for waving his arms
not given to giving garrulous speeches
but for his wonderful wife, the words came easy.
Oi prissy prick! Yeah, you London prat!
Bampton flinched, wrong-footed, afraid
there’s no peasant here who’ll pay your poll tax
so sling your hook you sorry sod
go gather your groats from the guilds!
The mob of muddy men went crazy
shouts of Shits! and Sods! rung round
each beat the air with a brawny bunch of fives
’till the raffish rabble reared on their horses
and their towny faces twisted in terror.
Simon Sudbury shall hear of this deceit!
Bampton bellowed over the bellicose chorus
rucking the reigns of his reluctant ride.
Be sure to recount your cowardice kind sir,
Ros quipped to the cackles of the crowd
and the tax men took off, totally trumped
by the plucky protests of the Fobbing peasants.
A skyful of stones and swearwords following
while Will was lifted way up high and walked
through the village, the virtuous hero of their victory.
But as the folk of Fobbing frolicked and drank
the details of their disobedient deed
spread through the spindly streets of Essex
like herpes in a half-priced whorehouse.
Stories bubbled in Basildon and Brentwood,
rumours raged through Rettendon and Stanford
discontent drove them down to Kent
across the corn-growing county of Hertfordshire
and lastly to London where the Lord Chancellor
pounded his palsied fist in his palm.