Alan Morrison on
(Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2017, 76pp)
Down and Out in Merthyr Tydfil
Sofa Surfin by veteran Welsh poet Mike Jenkins couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time given the current national epidemic in homelessness as a result of eight years of relentless Tory-driven austerity and psychopathically draconian cuts to benefits. Industry-gutted towns such as Jenkins’ native Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales have been particularly badly hit.
I first came across the phrase that makes the title of this book, ‘sofa surfing’, back in 2000 when I was working at a homeless shelter in Brighton & Hove; the falsely insouciant sound of the phrase seemed bitterly befitting for a seaside city; and, indeed, I used the phrase in the nautically-flavoured verse play I wrote about my experiences at the shelter, Picaresque. The term means those who are homeless but who manage to find shelter at night by sleeping on the sofas of friends or relatives.
How pitiful it is that eighteen years later homelessness –in all its many stripes– has increased at least fourfold, where there are presently just under 5,000 recorded individuals sleeping rough on the nation’s streets, and only this week (the second in February) a young Portuguese homeless man was found dead in his sleeping bag at the entrance to Westminster Portcullis House tube station, while a homeless woman almost developed hypothermia after a bucket of water was tipped over her in freezing temperatures.
Jenkins has been justifiably fired up by this appalling state of affairs to dedicate much of this poetry collection to the theme of homelessness, as well as the catastrophic effects of the welfare reforms and benefit cuts, with a local focus on the place he knows the most intimately.
As with his 2014 collection Barkin’ (previously reviewed on The Recusant), Jenkins once again composes his poems in ‘Valleys’ vernacular’ –something I’ve also encountered in Welsh expatriate poet Gwilym Williams– and they are basically idiomatic monologues spoken by working-class casualties of austerity. This is a very effective poetic device through which to ventriloquize polemic and it’s left to the reader to wonder whether or not these are invented voices, empathetic pieces based on local individuals the poet knows or has encountered, or if they are even verbatim anecdotes of real individuals.
These almost phonetic poems are infectious to the inner-ear and are perhaps most effective when spoken out loud –here are some excerpts from the first in the book, ‘Ewsed T Be Ooverville’:
Em’tiness. Them factree sheds.
the las shift leaves
an ev’ry machine stops.
We ewsed t be Ooverville,
sent all over
like rails an cannons
from them ol ironworks.
Now, we drive away
f r the las time
with nowhere t go:
the toy factree’s gone
an we ardly make nothin.
It’s all retail an ousin
in this once great town:
but oo cun spend
an nobuddy’s building.
All them years, all them skills
wasted like my son
with is degree, signing on.
There are poems lamenting the death of the town’s coal industry, the still raw scars on the landscape that once were coal mines, as in ‘Rose from Rubble’ and ‘I Put It There’. While ‘On’y When I Sing’ depicts the mental scars of trauma of a war veteran. There’s much to be said for Jenkins’ oeuvre being very much the Welsh equivalent of much of the oeuvre of Northumbrian poet Tom Kelly who also produces whole collections of poems with a local focus, almost poetic social document, and both poets share a similarly economic style with mostly short free verses.
In ‘A Lej’ (i.e. ‘A Legend’), a faintly bohemian English teacher known as ‘Tommy Doc’ is reminisced on by one of his former school pupils:
Scripts an films, stories n poems,
oo needed borin comprehensions?
On is wall ee painted a Muriel
o Dylan Thomas, fag n all.
Ee melted away, jest left,
is walls wuz painted pavement grey.
Some of Jenkins’ poems contain end-rhymes to the lines, as in ‘Ol School’ which quite a colourful depiction of a quirky French teacher who ‘wore a red beret/ an always green wellies’ and had a ‘strawberry face, ooked nose’; there’s some excellent alliterative effect in the final stanza: ‘orderin wine, lost in Paris,/ in a market tastin cheese:/ kept er distance, on look-out f disease’.
Some poems are blackly comical, such as ‘No Offence!’, which is the monologue of a passive-aggressive character dishing out friendly insults signalled by the titular phrase (and contains the slang term ‘mingin’ [-g]), and the equally scatological ‘Dogs Wanna Be’. The slightly surreal ‘A Pijin in Greggs’ is the monologue of a pigeon who wants ‘to do a college course/ t learn ow t be a seagull/ an yeard this is where yew enrol’; he’s a nostalgic pigeon who describes the local high street by citing where the old more characterful shops once were: where ‘Anne’s Pantree’ and ‘Woolies’ and ‘Dew’urst’s ewsed t be’. And this atmosphere of a ghost town is echoed in ‘Ower Town’:
An ev’ryone talkin in
ewsed-t-bes an I remembers
Austerity-hit Merthyr is a town in continual decline:
Ower town is slowly closin down,
one arfta another the shops,
the ouse’old names an local ones,
like old people dyin off
in a neglected Care Ome.
‘Excape of a Sand-Dog’ depicts a street sand sculptor ‘from Rewmania or summin’: ‘Ee makes a sand-dog down town/ outside of-a Pound Store,/ buskin with no sound’. Then the ironic fate of his sculpture: ‘A mangy stray bites off one of its legs’, and so
Vlad the sand-sculptor catches up with it,
scoopin is creation into a bag;
losin its dogginess till-a nex town.
In ‘Flip Flops in Winter’ an old lady points out the peculiar sight of a man in ‘Shorts, t-shirt, flip flops,/ tattoos on both arms’. Islamophobia is tackled in ‘Muslims Up Yer!’ and ‘It’s Tha Muhammad Ali’. ‘Pound Shop Politics’ is satirical by juxtaposition when a Merthyr charity-and pound shop crawler enters a shop with a large purple pound sign outside and is surprised as ‘a man showed im two pamphlets: ‘No to EU’ an ‘Cutting Immigration’’ and is then enlightened, or not as the case may be: “This is the UKIP shop, my friend,/ not another Pound store.’/ Pissed off, ee visited the Polish shop nex door’.
A youthful voice in ‘Punished F Bein Young’ talks of how the jobcentre ‘send us t Charitee shops/ an Pound shops t work f nothin’. ‘Starin At-A Rain’ depicts a partly incapacitated household, the mother periodically depressed (‘My mam’s jest lyin/ on-a- sofa:/ some days it its er’), the narrator being a young girl stuck in her wheelchair, her ‘dad, my carer/ elped me there’, who spends her days just staring at the rain through the window:
Tampin outside my ome,
no way cun I risk
damp like venom,
like smoke fillin my lungs…
The disabled daughter closes by plaintively informing us:
I do get benefits,
yet I’m yer sittin
starin at-a rain.
‘Tha Room, A Punishment’ is a powerful indictment of the despicable bedroom tax:
slike a dungeon,
a cell, a threat,
a debtors’ prison.
Some dayz we go without –
my usban struggling
arfta surgree, pills is food.
suddenly a punishment –
gonna stand up to-a Government,
they’ll yer me shout!
The eponymous ‘Sofa Surfin’ is perhaps fittingly one of the longer poems in the book (most are one page in length), and its narrator relays her descent into homelessness after being thrown out by her husband:
Ee’ve kicked me out
without even a key
t get all I owned,
a sleepin-bag; my phone
woz dead as my life become.
Ee wuz the final one.
ever tried it mum?
Ever tried balancin
on a fuckin sofa
when yewer ands shake
like it’s always winter?
Jenkins makes strong use of nautical metaphors and synecdoche playing on the titular phrase:
Ever tried ridin the waves
of forms and offices,
find an answer in impossible paper?
ever tried goin under,
I mean drownin alive
below all yewer memrees?
Coz I’m talking ‘bout the breakers
ewger than the sea’s –
divorce an booze, gettin sacked an speed.
Ow I stood on-board
f moments bein dragged down
t the subway, like an underwater tunnel
where I could ardly breathe.
The succeeding poem follows similar themes: ‘Fren or Pimp?’ is the vignette of a homeless young man manipulated into prostitution by his older drinker pal apparently in return for the shelter he’s provided him in his home. The narrator concludes inconclusively –almost like Jim Hawkins trying to make a character judgement of the amoral and ambiguous Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Again Jenkins uses the image of a room or a home as a prison.
The hilariously punning ‘Viagra Falls’ reveals that Merthyr was the town that ‘discovered Viagra’, ‘invented Viagra’ and/or was ‘the accidental birthplace o Viagra’ –something to bear in mind when everything else about the place seems impotent:
when the on’y fags yew cun get
look like long, thin compewters
an there’s no gold left
in-a attic f’r-a pawnbrokers
One of the most powerful poems in the book is ‘The Assessment’ in which an incapacitated narrator talks of her predicament during and after one of the notorious work capability assessments:
I crawled inta the Assessment
arfta my ESA,
I ad a walkin stick
my ands gnarled
my ips killin me,
an the Depression tabs
playin ell with my ead
makin me a zombie.
The poem closes on a resonant and poignant point:
Waitin f the appeal,
waitin on death row
f money t save me
or fuckall t finish me –
volts through my body.
‘Casualties’ is one of the more poetic narratives with some arresting images –it appears to recount a drug-induced accident or suicide pact of two local youths:
They jumped from the footpath under,
place where the druggies go
t pump theirselves full
b’fore they lose ev’rythin.
Most problee they woz outa
theyer skulls when they decided
t fly t’gether without wings;
craze canaries in-a daylight.
The narrator then recalls having known one of them, a girl, at school, whom he recalls as ‘bright in class’ but, like so many countless intelligent young working-class kids, educationally neglected –ending up in a pitiful state of addiction:
Them yers I woz learnin a trade
she lost er feathers one by one;
the week b’fore i seen er in town:
she woz skinny as a skellington.
‘Inta the Black’ is very much a vignette of the age of Daniel Blake:
i dropped off of yewer system,
don’ afto sign on,
i int no statistic
an yew carn stop my benefit
coz my missis got a job
an I’m sick of disappointment.
There’s over a million
jest like me,
fallen off the edge
of compewter cliffs
an inta the black,
landed on a ledge.
The narrator defiantly boasts to the DWP that ‘Yew carn see me now/ or send snoopers down’. ‘Sleepin in a Subway’ does what it says on the tin effectively:
Down inta the subway
call it ell, call it Ades
I take my place
with the rollin cans
an piles o waste.
If on’y I ad rats
f companee or mangy strays;
ee’ve flung me out, no key…
I keep expectin visitors,
some gang o piss-eads
ewsin me as a target.
I curle into a foetus,
wish I woz a baby.
‘Fly Man’ presents himself as a surreptitious superhero who dresses all in black so he’s not spotted by ‘the cops’ as he puts up unsponsored posters promoting certain political causes:
Ev’ry cause I put up
over the yers from anti-poll tax
t calls f’r a Welsh Republic.
In ‘Sabotage’ the narrator who used to work happily in a video machine factory vents his sense of conflict at being forced by the jobcentre to take a job in a new factory opened making armoured cars for warzones:
I marched the streets b’fore
‘gainst Iraq, Afghanistan an Gaza.
I don’ take it, my benefit disappears.
But he plots his revenge:
Orready I’m plannin t scheme:
a wire yer, a loose connection.
Sabotage, s nobuddy knows.
In ‘Rubbish Sculpture’ the narrator describes an anthropomorphic sculpture he’s making out of various bits and bobs including ‘a fisherman’s float,/ collar off a dog,/ a rusty door-knob/ an two CND yer-rings’ –this is his means of self-expression, but also a creative statement on behalf of his austerity-gutted home town and he hopes will be a transformative act: ‘all a-waste/ suddenly matterin agen’.
‘Crawlin on Em’tee’ is a powerful portrait of familial malnutrition brilliantly told:
Now I know wha-a Big Society is really,
It’s like a ewge ole in-a stomachs
Of my small famlee.
My mam as t work, my dad’s on sick;
Las thing I want is charitee,
But the Food Bank ave saved me.
Jenkins’ makes effective use of alliteration:
‘Mam, I’m starving! Wha’s f’ tea?’
Beans, beans an more beans;
All yew yer on telly’s ‘bout obesity.
‘They Stopped My Benefit’ is the bitter vignette of an aging man on the unemployment scrapheap:
They stopped my benefit
an what ave i got
left in-a flat?
two boggin tea-bags
an a tin o sardines
The narrator asserts that he is a striver:
I always woz a worker
ever since sixteen:
I ad skills
an now i’m a nothin,
too ol f’r ev’ry job.
The narrator is a talented cartoonist but can’t find any work:
They stopped my benefit
but carn stop my life:
gimme a pencil an a pint,
juke-box playin Neil Young,
jest gimme a book
an my ead’ll be buzzin!
This perennial tale of wasted working-class artistic talent calls to mind Nigel Barton’s vignette about his coalmining father’s neglected gift at drawing hands in perfect detail in Denis Potter’s Wednesday Play, Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965).
Domestic violence is tackled in ‘Bruise On Er Face’. ‘Tha Driver!’ is about a bus driver –‘Im with-a graveyard teeth/ an a bloody cackle/ like-a witches off of Shakespeare’– who mocks his elderly passengers by taking them to a local nursing home called ‘t Daffodils’. In ‘Local Celeb’ the narrator vents his resentment towards an old schoolmate who’s ended up a ‘celebritee’:
We both done Drama in school
so ow come I’m the one
signin up on the dole,
while ee’s in tha Soap?
Amid the austerity narratives and general miseries depicted there are many comical poems throughout and a pervading sense of the defiant Welsh humour against all odds: in ‘Las Bus Ome’ it seems as if a bus-full of passengers are on an accidental trip in both senses of the word brought on by a ‘Strong smell from a-back,/ a cloud o perfumed smoke/ driftin down the aisle/ an the driver starts t larf/ all on is own accord’ with a ‘grin/ like an Allowe’en mask,/ is mind’s a candle flick’rin’.
Jenkins makes it his speciality to depict the souls lost in daily consumerist purgatories and manages to make something significant, even sublime, from the utterly mundane, as in ‘Dress-Up Dave Is Back Agen’ where the eponymous quirky character walks about in different costume hats and is spotted
In-a Works lookin at cheapo books;
not jest any ol crown
but a tide We Three Kings one,
though ee ad is sewt on.
There’s some great alliteration in the following stanza:
Not even a placard sayin
‘Balthazar Dave’ angin,
but with all the glam an glitz
on his fancy ead-gear.
I seen im, Dress-up Dave,
ordin’ree up to is fore’ead,
an then, a nest o jewels.
All ail King o the Presink!
The expletive-ridden ‘The Fightin Season’ starts: ‘Black Friday, Black Saturday, the fightin season./ An always comin inta Merthyr Vale station’. In ‘Bard Memree’ the narrator recalls a local pugilist imprisoned for ‘GBH’ and ‘f settin fire to-a Union Jack in-a Den’ and who is last spotted ‘On-a platform, surrounded by cops; bard memree, as we left im be’ind’. ‘One Way Ticket’ begins in sing-song style as a lady with a ‘loud smile’ says:
‘Know yew always wan’ed t travel,’ she sayz,
‘an ow yew always d’say
we on’y ever go t Tenby,
an if we’re lucky Cardigan Bay’.
‘Int Got No Balls’ takes a jab at male chauvinism:
Women in rock
is like chess in pubs,
or rugby without goin
on-a piss before’and.
Women do b’long in a crowd
or angin ‘bout backstage…
Entertainment and escape chemically stimulated is part and parcel of the recreation of Merthyr’s inhabitants, as depicted in ‘Outta the Undergrowth’:
Outta the undergrowth by B and Q’s they come
off of theyer eads on cheapo rocket fuel.
It’s a glorious Mediterranean day in Merthyr,
ev’ryone’s wearin socks ‘n’ shorts ‘n’ trainers.
Towards the church, clutchin plastic bottles
they’re screamin an yellin, larfin and barkin.
A woman crosses over an I slow down;
seen em before but I’m still on pins.
They ewse fewnral cones as loud-ailers,
callin on-a dead t answer.
‘THIEVES STEAL BRIDGE!’ is an amusing vignette:
Outside-a newsagents I seen the eadlines
‘THIEVES STEAL BRIDGE!!!’
sif this town wuz livin up
to its repewtation.
I thought o the Missis
on the way ome down-a A470
an would she disappear
inta a chasm by Pentrebach?
For once I bought the ‘Merthyr’
an they adn stole the whool thing,
jest loadsa iron bars!
still, it got me thinkin.
Anti-immigration sentiments are voiced by a woman waiting at the bus-stop in ‘No Weather’ –here it is in full:
We aven ad no weather this summer,
it’s bin rain, rain an more rain.
Where’s the bus? I complained
t the Council, they said it woz on’y me.
Bin t Marks yet? Food All’s brilliant,
but the whool town’s run down.
What appened in Paris wuz beyond!
It’s all them refugees, see …
It’s bound t be, they come over yer
but arf o them are gee-addies.
An tha woman welcomin them in Germany,
yew think they’d won the war!
Personally, I carn stand the Germans.
No sign of-a bus. There’s snow on the way.
Unexpectedly a majority in Labour-run Wales voted Leave in the ill-fated EU Referendum in 2016 –but here is one Welsh resident who thinks it’ll spell catastrophe for the region:
We’re too bloody weak –
all tha money
come from Brussels an now London.
We don’ produce nothin
on’y wind, food and poetree
an oo cun live off these?
Slike we’re buskin, see,
playin the same ol tewns,
desperate f a few coins.
They see us an pass by –
‘Well they are doing something,
but it’s not proper really!’
The collection closes on one of its strongest poems which leaves its mark as a final poetic statement from a Merthyr citizen –I excerpt it in full:
Where I grew up, Plane Grove.
when i woz a kid
i thought it woz great,
all them other streets
named arfta trees an plants –
Marigold, Acacia an Oak,
but owers an aeroplane.
None of us seen many trees
or bushes or flowers –
no gardens ardly
jest loadsa grass
f r-a dogs t shit on.
Where I come from, the Gurnos,
course we all take drugs,
get pissed all-a time,
think we’re fuckin ard,
we all do time, get fat
an moan ‘bout immigrants
takin work we don’ want –
‘cept i got out
wen t college, got a tidee job.
It’s better now f definite,
murals an not graffiti,
glass an not bricked up –
an the plane’s a tree
growin rapid t shelter and shield,
standin ewge n proud
like my parents ewsed t be.
And so on that moving last trope ends this gritty but amusing and compassionate testament to our austere times. Sofa Surfin came out around the same time as my own poetic testament to eight years of austerity and welfare cuts, Tan Raptures (Smokestack, 2017). While the themes of both books are very similar the styles and approaches are markedly different. Jenkins’ collection has gone full tilt into what we might term polemical ventriloquism by which he makes his many points about the state of the nation through the mouths of Merthyr’s impoverished.
There has ever been much poetry to mine from the seam of working-class language which has a tendency to be more visceral, sense-impressing and earthily descriptive than abstracted middle-class locution. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) pays testament to such linguistic colour and expressiveness of proletarian patois with its verbatim transcripts from interviews conducted with different types of impoverished city folk describing their particular occupational specialisations.
The poetry of ‘proletarian witness’, whether empathetic or more empirical, is significantly on the increase, which is a sign of our times, and it’s a medium Jenkins shares with other contemporary poets such as Tom Kelly, Peter Street, Victoria Bean (Caught), David Swann (The Privilege of Rain), Keith Armstrong, Angela Readman, Alistair Findlay (Dancing with Big Eunice), Andrew Jordan (Bonehead’s Utopia), Andrew Willoughby & Bob Beagrie (Kids), Paul Summers, Sean Burn, to name just a few.
This collection is the perfect antidote to the more corporate poetry of the big metropolitan imprints. This is also a handsomely produced volume from Welsh imprint Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, and has an exceptional bespoke colour painting by Gus (Gustavius) Payne for its cover.
Alan Morrison © 2018