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ISSUE 9

The Dog's Not Laughing by Jim Greenhalf.Redbeck Press, 24 Aireville Rd, Frizinghall,   Bradford BD9 4HH. ISBN 0 946980 71 3.

The poem I like best in this substantial collection of Jim Greenhalf's work over the past thirty-two years (a publishing record anyone should be proud of) is OUT OF PASSION WITH THE TIMES. It's about Bradford, which Greenhalf knows well and is fond of, and J.B. Priestley with whose values the poet clearly identifies, to some extent at least. Only to some extent I would say, as there's a strong bohemian feel to this collection. I like the many references he makes to cafes He's obviously been an habitue of many and knows why they appeal to intellectuals and artists: places to sit and think and read and talk and watch go by a world you feel more comfortable about when you don't actually have to be part of it. Greenhalf is the kind of man, I suspect, who would have enjoyed discussion in the Procope with Diderot or Montesquieu. He has a feel for the great good place that a real cafe is and is in tune with Kafka's recognition that as public spaces where everyone is welcome and there is no hierarchy, where everyone must survive on their wit, charm or inscrutability, they offer an asylum from the world of fixed authorities, lunatic power, manic pursuit of money and entrenched philistinism. I imagine Greenhalf would be a good man to meet over a capuccino and from the travels indicated here, along with a deep interest in modern history and the fate of the world and a broad reading, not to mention an equally broad experience, he would make an interesting interlocutor. Which is what he is in these poems, at least the best of them. OUT OF PASSION WITH THE TIMES is the kind of piece he handles well because he's talking to himself about what he knows and asking questions about things that matter to him, so he draws you in, as people do when they talk to themselves rather than saying what they think they ought to say. The language of the piece is as solid and unpretentious as Priestley himself but the tone is right: the mingling of regret with a sense of the inevitability of the passing of what we have cherished; the recognition of a cultural decline and a falling away of decency with a knowledge that there's not much he can do about it but keep on doing the little he can. And when he says of Priestley:  

you were not wrought by fashion  
but fashioned by what you thought and felt  

you feel that he has our age's capacity to erode character ( subject of a recent book by Richard Sennett) just right. There is no going back, but there is a worthwhile retrospection, a modest willingness to learn from a past we weren't part of and a sensible cautiousness about playing too fast and loose with the future which Priestley well understood.  

OUT OF A PASSION WITH THE TIMES is a longish poem (four and a half pages). There are other long pieces in the book including the justifiably praised REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY sequence. The poetry, you could say, is in the pity and there's nothing wrong with that, especially when you think of NATO's current madness. But there's more than just the pity. The piece is robust and bracing, the nuances of the differing voices well-handled and the quiet outrage at official lying and the casual waste of life never super-added but always embedded in the sculpted lines. It's the kind of poetry you don't find too much of these days as more and more writers pull away from the demands of public themes and it shows how different is the sensibility expressed when a poet explores subjectivity through responses to public events. The illusion dies that there is some unsullied corner where we can live out our small individuality away from the collective madness. When men ( and it is principally men) kill one another in millions and lie about the killing, when the sane are driven mad by killing and the mad executed as cowards and the executions lied about, there is no refuge to which we can retreat that is not touched by shame and heartbreak.  

In LOOKING FOR LOUIS MACNEICE, part of the selection from LEARNING THE CRAFT, Greenhalf expresses his dislike of Oxford: it's pretensions, the town-gown nonsense, the over-educatedness of too many of its egg-heads (and this is not the usual English dislike of intellectuals and artists- on the contrary, it is the recognition that the pursuit of academic gongs goes hand-in-hand with that hatred and that there is a kind of learning that is a turning away from, rather than an engagement with, reality) the exclusive quads and the "men who hope to be mistaken for professors". He calls Larkin a "Thin apostle of arsenic and old lace", which won't endear him to many professors hoping to be mistaken for men and he runs from all this as he searches the shelves of Blackwell's for Louis MacNeice, whom he sees as " red-bloodied". I wouldn't agree with him about that. I think MacNeice was more red-minded, but Greenhalf is right to want an intellect and an imagination that don't have to preen, to hide behind ivy-clad walls, to prance around in gowns, to pour champagne from stone mullions in celebration of nothing more than privileged mediocrity. He is himself an example of intellect and imagination wanting life, as Lawrence would have said. It's a neat little poem and the kind of thing you want to remember. Something to quote during a cafe discussion. Few poems are memorable in that way and it isn't easy to hit the tone or the economy of expression that makes them so.  

Not all the poems collected here have that quality. There's a piece about Duncan Edwards (Greenhalf had trials for professional teams before he settled on writing as a career) which has an artificial feel about it. No doubt the poet really does feel nostalgic for the great player he never saw, but he doesn't manage to blend that into the poem. The words and the sentiment seem at a distance and my guess is that this is because this is more of an exercise in poetry than the successful pieces. It lacks the complexity of feeling that lies behind and seeps through the really strong poems Some of the rhyming poems too have a doggerel feel about them, as if the poet has put on formal attire to see if he can look respectable but longs to cast It in the comer and get back into his bohemian slouch. He's a good slouch. He slouches with style, wit, intelligence and ingenuity. He has no need of any kind of formal get-up.  

But in a book of over two hundred pages Greenhalf manages to be consistently strong. He's published five pamphlets but this is his first full collection. Long overdue and well worth less than ten quid of anyone's money if they have even a passing interest in contemporary poetry.

 

The Radical Twenties by John Lucas.   Five Leaves Publications, POBox 81, Nottingham NG5 4ER. ISBN 0907123 17 1. 11.99. 

England, D.H. Lawrence believed, was finished in 1916. He wrote about his despair in a letter to Cynthia Asquith, and of course in the seminal story, England, My England, which he later regretted and wished at the bottom of the sea. In what way was England finished ? Or perhaps, rather, which England ? John Lucas's project here is to show that the twenties, usually categorised or more or less dismissed as a decade of frivolity, glitz, glamour, Noel Cowardice, were in fact just as radical, maybe more so than the supposedly revolutionary thirties. After all, wasn't there the General Strike and weren't more people members of unions in 1929 than ten years later ? He makes, as you'd expect, an extremely good, but more especially an extremely interesting, case. This is a book which no-one interested in the period, or what preceded or succeeded it can afford to miss. Indeed, no-one with an interest in the shape of twentieth century literature or history should be without a copy. It is a first-class piece of scholarship, elegantly written, eclectic and thought-provoking. Simply as a reference book for the period it's indispensable. But it's much more than that. 

Lucas is an excellent literary critic who discusses the work of more or less forgotten writers with as much care and insight as he brings to that of great figures. How many people these days read, or indeed know of, Douglas Goldring ? Lucas doesn't try to claim him as a novelist of the stature of Lawrence or Joyce, but he does give you a real sense that his work is readable and important, at its own level. This willingness to lassoo lesser writers, to put them in the same pen as the greats and to encourage readers to see them as part of a shared pattern, time, sensibility, above all to see them as unworthy of the neglect into which they have fallen and as crucial to a complete understanding of what was going on in their time and how that shaped what was to follow, is one of the joys and wisdoms of this study. If it encourages readers to search out books like, say, Beresford's Revolution, and to recognise, therefore, how different the feel of the time was from that often conveyed in academic studies, then it will help to spread that notion so convincingly upheld in Cary Nelson's Repression and Recovery that cultures tend to value and preserve those works which they are politically, emotionally, psychologically and morally disposed to favour, to the neglect of equally worthwhile productions.  

But which England was it that Lawrence saw as finished? As John Murray has recently remarked, Lawrence was essentially a child of his native Nottinghamshire, most at home with its landscape, its flora and fauna. Lawrence was not a city boy. Not a cosmopolitan. Certainly, his England was finished. The twenties brought the possibility of new freedoms. Lucas discusses the way women began to break away from their parents and traditional roles, as he explores new forms of expression and sensation: jazz and dance and drugs. The pre-war certainties and civilities were cracking. A young generation had lost its fathers on the battlefields. There was a sense of possibility mingled with the retrospective horror. Above all, Lucas is concerned with political radicalism. The lost opportunity of April 25th 1921 became the new opportunity of May 1926. And the writers who shared the hope of a new order were there. First-rate writers like Rickword and Gurney. They took sides (the book's final chapter is entitled Taking Sides) which requires confidence, a lack of embarrassment about nailing your colours to the mast, an embarrassment endemic among today's writers. They could take sides because hope was available.  

For some, however, the hope was a "savage god". Yeats's words from 1919 define a fear of democracy, real democracy, that has never receded. In a letter to Richard Aldington in 1921 Eliot expressed his "profound hatred" of democracy. Lucas acknowledges The Waste Land as a poetic masterwork. Eliot was a great poet but a meagre man. What he rose to in his writing he couldn't match in his life. He took the wrong side, gave in to despair and hatred, propelled, it's hard not to believe, by his own intimate failures. Great writers cast great shadows and beneath those of Eliot and Yeats and Pound, enemies of democracy though friends of art, we still live. Read John Lucas's book and you'll find that the twenties didn't divide neatly between their reactionary, despairing view of the majority of human lives and the frivolousness of the popular song on the portable gramophone. It was a time when profoundly conflicting visions of what life in England (and it is England Lucas concentrates on because that is his sphere of expertise) might be like confronted one another. It was a time when the possibility of real change was close at hand. A possibility which had existed in 1914 and been postponed by the debacle. A possibility given expression by the range of writers Lucas evokes In this fascinating book. A possibility which seems remote now but which may again come clearly into view. What this book helps us to understand is the role writers can and must play in helping to fashion a sensibility which is not afraid of freedom. Eliot and Pound were courageous in their art. They opened up possibilities which many in their time couldn't imagine. As in art so in society. Courage and imagination are indispensable The interplay between artistic and social radicalism, experimentation and freedom is never simple. One drives on the other lags behind. There is never a neat fit. By understanding the complexities and contradictions of a period like the twenties we can better understand those of our own, and, maybe, keep alive better the possibilities for freedom and democracy it enfolds, as well as perceiving more clearly those that may arise. But we won't do this without imagination and even the great art of meagre reactionaries can help us to understand that.

 

A Weapon In the Struggle: The Cultural History Of the Communist Party In Britain. Edited by Andy Croft. Pluto Press, 345 Archway Rd, London N6 5AA. 14.99 (Pb) 45 (Hb).  

When teenage audiences began screaming their appreciation of The Beatles, an anonymous professor at the Royal Academy of Music (presumed to be Alan Bush ) described It as voodoo. Bush had, of course, spent most of his creative life trying to produce a music of the highest quality which could also be popular; a unifying music. Nor was he unsuccessful. He was a moving force behind Towards Tomorrow which played to 78,000 in Wembley stadium on 2nd July 1938, the hugely popular 1939 Festival of Music of the People, and other similar enterprises which drew in big audiences. But there's big and big. Bush was no match for The Beatles. Their music was classless and fun. It spoke to a hedonistic moment and of those things that everybody feels: love and sexual desire. Class struggle cannot compete with the excitement and compulsion of that. Bush was Marxist but The Beatles were Darwinian. People are wired for sex and love. Much as Marx might have liked to believe in the inevitability of class struggle, it's like a cold virus: everywhere but not everyone catches it. Working-class kids loved The Beatles and queued outside the record shops with their few shillings from their paper rounds to buy their latest records. But middle and upper-class kids loved them too. This was the sixties. Class distinctions were melting before your eyes. Youth was on the move. Bob Dylan told parents their children were beyond their command. The buttoned-up hypocrisy of the fifties was being swept aside. And radicalism, if you wanted it, had to be fun.  

But it was a scam.  

The Beatles had more to do with business than music. They were a sociological and commercial phenomenon. They had a knack for a catchy melody and fulfilled their own ambition of writing tunes for the postman to whistle ( nothing wrong with that), but they were part of an essentially exploitative business. It made them millionaires and left the rest us with our tawdry illusions. When the fug of transient hedonism cleared we were back to reality: Vietnam, the oil price crises of the early seventies, severe cuts in public spending as the IMF leaned on elected governments (elected to increase public spending), the return of mass unemployment and the apogee of it all, the election of the Grantham Grundyist, the leather-tongued oracle of the common-place bourgeois idiocies of the twentieth century. Alan Bush, in spite of his foolish acceptance of Zhdanovism, was a genuine artist and he wanted to help create a common culture for the British people. The Beatles were part of a movement, concerted if not conspiratorial, to ensure that culture, like society Itself, should remain divided. Birtwistle for the egg-heads, Spice Girls for the rest. Bread and circuses. Give the buggers what they want and the assumption is they want trash) and keep them in their place. Culture as a weapon in the struggle to defeat social equality and unity. This book is the story of the attempt to use it for the opposite end.  

In his introduction, Andy Croft quotes Alick West who turned the title of this study on its head by saying that "socialism is a weapon in the fight for culture." The defeat of socialism, the failure of that high-minded project to raise not merely the standard of living of the economically deprived, but the level of experience of the culturally impoverished, is a triumph not merely of greed and crass materialism but also of the most reduced philistinism. In his fascinating essay on Fore publications, Andy Croft quotes circulation figures for left-wing cultural publications which take your breath away. The Key Books series, for example, sold more than half a million copies of its serious, erudite pamphlets in its first year. What Croft's essay brings into focus is the extent to which the earnest and enthusiastic desire to learn, to be stimulated to think, to make the effort to see the world in a light different from that shed by the sycophantic mass media has been lost. The auto-didactic working man or woman is virtually no more. Education takes place within institutions for the pursuit of exams for the pursuit of career. Pish! The loss is enormous. Poetry and the People a badly-produced, twenty-page sheet had a circulation of a thousand with a year of its launch in July 1938. How many poetry mags in Britain today get anywhere near that ? And poetry mags with a radical edge! Loss. Loss. Loss.  

The autonomy of art. Who would wish to argue against it? Art that serves tendentious purposes loses its honesty. Who would wish to defend the stupidities of Zdhanovist Socialist Realism ? But as Lawrence Ferlinghetti famously remarked about open-mindedness, that it makes no sense to take it so far that your brains fall out, so with autonomy of art, it makes no sense to push it so far that art disappears up its own fundament. Art has a purpose: the education of the emotions. It is not a mere super-added bit of entertainment. It is not flat escapism like The Bill or Neighbours. That's what this book is about: art speaking to human aspiration of the noblest kind. In spite of all the corruptions within the socialist movement, the grim desire for power for its own sake, the imaginativeless adherence to the most wretched dogma, the story here is of a real wish to create a rich, vibrant, robust culture to be shared by all.  

Of course, if wishes were horses. Socialism undoubtedly didn't understand the forces ranged against it and there is something pitiful in intellectuals hoping for the fulfillment of their dreams through workers. But in these essays which range over the neglected Scottish novelist James Barke, graphic art, pageant, folk song, film, literary criticism, jazz, publishing, the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner, you see how seriously the more imaginative members of or fellow-travellers with the CPGB, took both art and the attempt to heal society's cultural divisions. The array of names involved in this struggle is impressive and a reminder of just how far the attempt to find an alternative to capitalism permeated the minds and sensibilities of thinking and sensitive people. The question is, what would these people have done without the CP ? Was its existence a requirement of the recognition of the importance of the struggle and of the need to take sides to at least some degree? I doubt it. And the book makes clear that often the imaginative radicals were working against the dull apparatchiks of "King St". The young British composer, Richard Causton, has recently written a piece called Millennium Scenes, not to celebrate but to question the celebrations. He has said that if we want people to be around to celebrate the year 3000, we ought not to be confirming the status quo. So the radical spirit of Bush and Tippett and Rawsthorne lives on, but in a composer being true to his own lights musically. Of course, neither the mass nor the masses will listen to Causton, any more than they listen to Alan Bush.  

The struggle, against deleterious division in society and in culture, goes on. But as I was reading this excellent book, full of intriguing references, readable, well-researched and edited, I kept thinking of the artist who, for me, is probably the most subversive post-war British figure. A man who denied any political affiliation or guiding theory whatsoever. He wouldn't have been welcome in the CP because of his overt homosexuality. What made his attack on contemporary society so accurate and so wounding was that it was personal. No-one has made better fun of the British class system, of the snobbery at the heart of our life, of the hypocrisy which holds the whole structure in place than Joe Orton. Mrs Thatcher always looked and sounded like a refugee from the cast of an undiscovered Orton play. She was the Fay McMahon of British politics: a vicious bitch keeping up appearances. Orion's work is not socialist but it's certainly a vital weapon in the struggle against the attitudes and emotions that keep capitalism in place. Look at his attack on corporatism and sycophancy In THE GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT.  

And perhaps there is a lesson here: by following their artistic noses rather than the prescriptions of any Zdhanov, artists are most likely to produce work which will celebrate those values of equality, generosity, liberalism, personal liberty, responsibility, peace, friendliness and co-operation that are at the heart of that socialism Alick West believed, rightly, to be the best means of enhancing human culture.