Illusion & Austerity/ Verses in an
Advertising Culture: A ‘Caudwellian’
Take on Two Volumes: Advertorial
Verse versus Adversarial Verse
by Niall McDevitt
International Times, 2012
by Sam Riviere
But to turn now from a disputable synthetic substitute to something, to my mind, much more resembling the authentic article: Niall McDevitt’s Porterloo. This is a volume of an entirely different order at practically every level, and, I think, more likely to last the test of time and changing values and attitudes, and to earn, incrementally, critical vindication for its very brave statement in –broadly avant-garde– verse against the iniquities of late-capitalist depersonalisation. McDevitt’s polemical spade spares no contemporary political offence, and leaves no Tory unturned. Particularly targeted is the tabloid and government-generated neo-fascist attitudes that (inevitably?) germinate in periods of austerity to distract the public from the true culprits of their reduced circumstances (the unfettered forces of anarcho-capitalism), by channelling their anger towards more tangible, visible and vulnerable targets (tactics which indicate that we are today witnessing our own attitudinal “1930s moment”), such as the unemployed (today’s rhetorically persecuted welfare ‘Jews’), themselves the most abjectly hit victims of the same austerity. Basically, these are the hoary old automatic levers of ‘divide-and-rule’ –historical default mechanisms of the political Right, whether fascist or Tory, or, in the case of today’s government, a medley of the two.
Whereas Riviere throws the splinters of austerity up in the air to play ‘pick up sticks’ with them for a spot of conceptual ‘cut-and-paste’, McDevitt, writing from the perspective of a poet-agitator, gets down and wrestles with the very rudiments of a highly selective and discriminatory austerity culture, of which he himself has previously been one of countless impecunious cuts-targets, not to say scapegoats for Tory and red-top stigmatisations (as have many contemporary poets, whether before and/or after establishing themselves through publication). But to better contextualise the perspective from which McDevitt writes, it’s instructive to excerpt the most salient bits from the detailed blurb which accompanied the original promotion of Porterloo at the International Times webzine (from which I’ll continue to quote throughout this review for contextual reference points as I comment on each poem):
Irish poet Niall McDevitt has seen through the English tradition of ‘courtly poetry’ and demonstrated how a self-respecting poetry need have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Foul language, ritual magic, anarchist politics, experimental forms serve to hex the body politic while warding off ‘the gentility principle’.
The collection is an epic response to the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010 – albeit hamstrung by coalition – and the shock of not only observing how Conservatism treats human beings but of suffering it first hand. (As an immigrant who experienced long term unemployment and who has since ‘graduated’ to low income self-employment, McDevitt was among the lower echelons of the 99% whom the Tory whip was lashing.)
Other pursuits were abandoned. McDevitt began writing a new type of poetry to counteract the sheer psychic harassment he was being subjected to by Con-Dem rhetoric and policy-making.
Some of the satire is a Jarryesque gob-in-the-face of the British establishment. A new level of vituperation is evident; McDevitt surpasses even the Tony Harrisons and Peter Readings…
In contrast to the ‘blue meanie’ parade of Conservatives that feature in the book, there is a bohemian backdrop of culture heroes such as Heathcote Williams, Amiri Baraka, Naomi Klein, David Graeber, Jeremy Reed, and Allen Ginsberg. The 20th Century English poet David Gascoyne is re-appraised in an essay in the appendix.
‘Blue meanie’ is a very apt Tory-metaphor recalling the International Times’ original incarnation, which was launched in the psychedelic-cusp year of 1966. The next trope is particularly interesting and important:
What McDevitt takes from Gascoyne is that there is a ‘third way’ in poetry. One doesn’t have to choose between the solipsism of personal expression or the agitprop of political expression…
I can certainly detect this Gascoynean sensibility in McDevitt’s oeuvre, though I would argue that there is a very tangible aspect of poetic ‘agitation’ there too, of a very instinctive and individualised kind; and one which is emphatically not agitprop in the true sense of the term, which implies artistic production which is partisan, or even state-sponsored/supporting (and even in the looser modern day definition of the term, to denote any art or literature that puts across an explicitly political message. McDevitt’s work still avoids such categorisation, as although it is in many ways ‘political’, it is not geared towards communicating any ‘explicitly political’ point. ‘Agitprop’, a portmanteau of ‘Agitation and Propaganda’, after the Russian Soviet Department of that name, was originally coined to denote artistic productions –pamphlets, plays or films– which partly served to promote Soviet State ideology, as most famously manifested in the socialist realism of Maxim Gorky (awarded the Order of Lenin by Stalin in 1932; though towards the end of his life, he was put under 'house arrest' by the despot), the more dissenting ‘agitprop’ theatre of Bertolt Brecht in 1920s Germany, or later, in the 60s and 70s, through English political playwrights such as Caryl Churchill (author of, among many plays, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976), the depiction of the Iver Digger commune of 1649-50)).
There are many contemporary British ‘agitprop poets’, almost all on the fringes of the mainstream and published through the smaller presses and journals; but McDevitt is not one of them: he is, if anything, more a poet agitator, or ‘agit-poet’, in that his poetry has a demonstrative spirit of protest –but it is protest smelted in the kiln of the poetic imagination rather than the political cooler of the social planner; more Shelleyan than Audenic. But, pivotally, McDevitt is literarily militant, and, at his most vitriolic, is to poetry what Jack Cade or Wat Tyler were to social agitation –which is meant as a compliment. In attitudinal terms he has a fair bit in common with the muscularly polemical poetry of Alexis Lykiard and Barry Tebb, while his Dadaist and Beat sensibilities, and ideogrammatic inclinations draw some comparisons with Michael Horovitz.
It’s perfectly true that there can be many middle ways between mainstream poetry solipsism and the other extreme of the spectrum, ‘agit-poetry’ of a particular ideological view or movement; perhaps something approaching the mythical ‘Auden Country’ which Auden himself found easier to map out in his poetry and polemics, than to poetically ‘occupy’ himself (something attempted more demonstrably by his poet-apostles Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender -while McDevitt is more a modern parallel to Louis MacNiece in terms of how the latter Irish poet stood at one remove to the more openly ideological/communist 'Auden School', while however being politically sympathetic). And certainly the Gascoynean influences in McDevitt’s oeuvre also account for some of its more surrealist elements (though an area in which Auden, particularly in his Thirties’ verse-drama experiments, such as A Dog Beneath the Skin and Paid On Both Sides, also dabbled, in part influenced by the satirical grotesquery of Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward’s deeply surreal, neo-Freudian Mortmere stories). The International Times promotional piece continued:
Porterloo is personal-political poetry at its wittiest and McDevitt’s trademark shape-shifting is everpresent. The poems are multi-stylistic with language games shifting from Biblical to Elizabethan to corporate to cloacal Englishes with ease, all in the creation of what American poet Clayton Eshleman calls ‘freed speech’.
The book covers a crucial period in modern history – one on a par with 1848 or 1968 – which includes the year of the riots in 2010, the international year of the Occupy movement in 2011, the symbolic year of 2012, and the year of Margaret Thatcher’s demise in 2013. No book of poems will come close to reflecting the political scene of this period in England as vividly as Porterloo. Its detail and humanity serve to signpost history.
The final Norman Cohn-inspired poem ‘A Thousand’ orchestrates the dying monologues of a Jew, a Christian, a Marxist and a Whore into a millenarian hymn of disappointment – that of the multitudes who live and die without ever seeing the social change they dreamed of and fought for – and has been praised by the eminent writer and critic Anthony Rudolf as ‘amazing’.
Then comes the triumphantly anti-Tory close, which ostensibly, and ironically –given McDevitt’s individualised oeuvre and its avoidance of any ideological ‘tag’– comes across perhaps as more brazenly ‘political’ than many of the publications of much more politically partisan poets:
If you hate the Conservatives, vote ‘agin’ them by getting your hands on a copy of Porterloo.
But such a statement –almost guaranteed, one might think, to discourage any right-wing readers from going any further with Porterloo– is more about expressing what McDevitt is against, what he is anti-, than any partisan or ideological creed he is for; and in any case, in such austerity-battered days as these, to say one is ‘anti-Tory’ or ‘anti-capitalist’ isn’t necessarily to say one is, therefore, a socialist, or communist, or Labour supporter (more likely Green, if anything), as it might have implied more back in the Eighties: it’s a more amorphous and fundamental humanitarian statement than any party politics can claim copyright for, and in McDevitt’s case, more broadly indicative of his organic anarchism.
This compendious promotional piece is then followed by more a ‘declaimer’ than a disclimaer, which, although not specifically partisan, is certainly anti- one particular political party, and no prizes for guessing which one it is; this hilariously pugnacious statement also adorns the back of the book’s cover, in place of what would normally be an author’s biog, directly under a photo of McDevitt brandishing a copy of b/w from which he is declaiming a poem through a loud-hailer mouthpiece –the epitomy of a poet ‘activist’:
Porterloo is the most lavatorial offering to date from malcontent poet Niall McDevitt. This temporary public convenience stinks of vulgarity, resentment, poverty and insolence. Its assault on Conservatism is tinged with the rancidity of a low-flying Irishman. No friend to the Windsors, the Daily Mail, the London Met or Tesco, he in fact seems to be entirely friendless, one of those unenviable men who sits alone in Wetherspoon pubs, looking for someone to grimace at. His squibs seem like elegies for a Welfare State that makes possible such substandard books. May this be his last! Hark as he rants on about ‘social cleansing’, lamenting his inevitable fate and just desserts. But: do not pity. All that will happen for certain if you buy this ‘pot-boiler’ is that you’ll be £10 poorer, and he won’t pay any tax on it. (10p would be a more appropriate price) . Oh yeh, and he has delusions of mysticism. Who else would entertain a cosmic vision of Dame Shirley Porter as Tory pissenfrau-cum-war goddess?
And certainly in terms of his themes and means of communicating them, there is in McDevitt’s verse a vehement strain of activism, which is broadly defined as ‘efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis’, often through means of protest and demonstration; in a more aphoristic sense, the term ‘connotes a peaceful form of conflict’ –and this is in many ways the kind of temperament I would most closely associate with McDevitt’s poetry. But if ‘peaceful conflict’ is a cardinal characteristic of McDevitt’s poetics, it is not one without humour –and humour can of course be a potent weapon, which McDevitt uses to devastating effect. In his own inimitably witty but caustic manner (my only cultural reference point would be the appositely outspoken and recalcitrant Morning Star columnist Paddy McGuffin), McDevitt takes on all the virulent memes and proto-mythological shadow-projections of our contemporary ‘Welfare Hate’ with irrepressible word-play, formidable grasp of both the folkloric and zeitgeist, prodigious engagement with the full gamut of language, and an almost Pied Piper-like mummering.
McDevitt’s verse-invectives are invested with an anti-advertorial viscera, are emphatically ‘anti-capitalist’, and, in the particular case of Porterloo, vehemently anti-Tory. So while Riviere’s verse is arguably advertorial, McDevitt’s is adversarial, and in this sense, Porterloo gets to grips with the urgent issues and events of our time, which 81 Austerities –in spite of its title– only liminally brushes up against for vague points of reference. If McDevitt was a ‘brand’, his advertising slogan could be something like: ‘McDevitt: Reaches the Parts Other Verse Circumnavigates’. Had Cyril Connolly been here today, he would have given a thumbs up to McDevitt’s polemical approach, since he’d no doubt see in it something in accordance with his cautionary statement to ‘political’ poets in his 1938 polemic, Enemies of Promise:
To-day, writers can still change history by their pleading, and one who is not political neglects the vital intellectual issues of his time, and disdains his material … He is not a victim of his time but a person who can alter it, though if he does not, he may be victimised. He has to be political to realise himself, and he must go on being political to protect himself.
Connolly saw ‘politics’, along with ‘the pram in the hall’, as ‘more dangerous to young writers than journalism’ –all three were ‘enemies to art’ or artistic ‘promise’ (hence the intriguing title to his polemic). No ‘pram in the hall’ or journalese to hamper McDevitt –but plenty of politics, even if markedly non-ideological and deeply idiosyncratic, but which empowers rather than hampers; this ‘political’ aspect is also its own self-protection –but one uncluttered by any ‘personality’ trappings of self-promotion. McDevitt’s volume is its own un-vaunted event, recalcitrant entity, thrown gauntlet, and to have been preceded by a trumpeting promotional fanfare would have simply cheapened its purpose. But, put more simply, Porterloo doesn’t need a plethora of supplemental damp praise and trophy-hooping hyperbole to interpolate on its and the public’s behalves that it is something of merit and importance. Like all authentic work, it does this by in and of itself, and in spite of mainstream promotional myopia.
All the plaudits and prizes in the world won’t make an inauthentic work anything more than inauthentic; just as a dearth of establishment recognition and associated awards can’t in any way detract from the self-evident value of an authentic work. As Alan Bold put it in his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970), ‘…it is wrong ...to imagine that the currently fashionable and approved constitutes the work of permanent importance’. The poetry establishment might sponsor a specific type of poetry all it likes, along with all the temporal accompaniments of damp praise and flash-in-the-pan ‘fame’ –but posterity makes its own judgements independent of the trends of any given period.
McDevitt’s formidable debut volume, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), was a significant critical success, and deservedly so –but, perhaps inescapably for such authentically ‘radical’ and subversive verse, was conspicuously absent from that year’s prize shortlists, and, indeed, from the kind of high profile supplemental auspices which later heaped such praise on Riviere’s word collages. Porterloo was published in book form in October 2013, but its symbolic publishing date was 2012, to which it is copyrighted inside, and which seems appropriate given that much of its contents were composed contemporaneously to the events of that momentous year, most important of which was, for McDevitt, the first flourishing of the Occupy Movement. But by the time of its appearance, austerity as a poetic concept had already been claimed, patented and trophied by the publishing corporates; so Porterloo was promotionally eclipsed –along with some other significant volumes responding to the Tory cuts culture– by the anticipatory superimposition of what to many might retrospectively be deemed the ‘topical’ pretender. But we can console ourselves by remembering that such travesties of contemporaneous cultural omission are, historically, pretty typical, and really nothing new or surprising; the work which is often of lasting importance is more often than not completely overlooked in its own time; gimmicks make for better ‘copy’ and always occupy more column inches than authentic works.
And even if one takes an historicist perspective on artistic criticism –itself, implicitly hermeneutical (there it is again!), and, as with dialectics, also rooted in the hugely influential thought of Hegel– through which works are interpreted and judged in the context of their periods rather than according to some timeless immutable qualitative acumen, it is, in my view, more likely to show that Porterloo is a demonstrative volume of its time in its thorough thematic response to contemporaneous vicissitudes, while 81 Austerities might –opportunistic title apart– have been written in the previous decade, or even –if one removed its Facebook, Twitter and texting leitmotivs– conceivably the one preceding that: since its air of postmodernist complacency is pretty much indistinguishable from the type of poetry that emerged in the ‘New Generation’ of the Nineties, and the ‘Next Generation’ of the Noughties. These two ‘schools’, of course, merged into a verse hegemony which later acquired the euphemism ‘mainstream’, still applied today as a term of mild disparagement by those poets whose own work deviates into different and less ‘fashionable’ styles. To my mind, McDevitt is one of a number of contemporary poets departing from the staid trends of the last two decades, in his case, by composing what might broadly be described as ‘polemical concrete poetry’.
Porterloo in many ways picks up where b/w left off, but expands on its themes and in many ways makes for a more implicitly political poetic statement against the intransigent right-wing hegemonies of Tory-imposed “permanent austerity” (for the poor) –and McDevitt quite openly pointed out in the e-flyer for the Porterloo launch that the volume was very much one of explicitly ‘anti-Tory’ verse (McDevitt, an Irishman, is no doubt uncomfortably aware of the Irish etymology of the term ‘Tory’: Middle Irish tóraidhe; modern Irish tóraí: outlaw, robber or brigand, from the Irish word tóir, meaning "pursuit", since outlaws were "pursued men").
McDevitt’s poetry is every bit as ‘conceptual’ as Riviere’s verse, but its Dada-esque appetite for typographical experiment (a tendency to vary font size and typefaces, or shape text into patterns a la concrete poetry), mixed medium of word, graphic and collage, and perambulatory Beat adumbrations (aspects which also echo Michael Horovitz’ oeuvre, particularly marked in the long poem ‘FUCKU’, pace, Horovitz’ similarly sprawling, rangy page-formations in A New Waste Land) exempt themselves from any aspersions of gimmickry or pretension simply in the sense of passion, force and conviction with which they are put across; and key to this is a demonstrable love for and almost compulsive engagement with language, the lifeblood of poetry, which McDevitt plumbs and pumps and punches into shape with chutzpah.
One of McDevitt’s most arresting features as a poet is that very rare thing almost entirely absent from the more gentrified formulas of supplemental verse today: anger. But, crucially, this is anger dextrously regulated and imaginatively channelled through the muscular use of language. In other words, McDevitt uses the poetic language to act as a conductor for the charge of this anger, to mould it and give it shape, so that we never feel we are reading versified tirades, but more carefully structured poems that harness these primal energies and hammer them into more disciplined shapes; sharp and precise sculptures that point and thrust and jut but without ever being too obtrusive or off-putting.
McDevitt’s verse might sometimes wear esoteric patterns on its sleeves, but they are never obscurantist brocades, and are always of an experiential patina: they are the robes of a distinctly shamanistic, even mystical, poetry; kaftans of a poetic ‘sensibility’ –as opposed to the designer-labelled, ‘radical chic’ v-neck and crumpled flannel-suit of the 81 Austerities ‘brand’. (Indeed, these two books very much symbolise the cultural antagonisms of sensibility versus brand, substance versus label, bruise versus badge, authentic versus synthetic, natural versus artificial, spiritual versus physical, mystical versus visceral, revolution versus conservatism, and, more specifically in this particular context, authentic verse-activism versus sponsored poetry-trustafarianism –in shorthand: ‘McDevitt versus Riviere’).
And ‘sensibility’ is the operative word in McDevitt’s case: ‘sensibility’, as in the sense Alan Dent of The Penniless Press meant it in relation to the poetry of another authentically ‘radical’ poet writing today, Paul Summers, when reviewing his collection union (Smokestack Books, 2011); though in terms of a certain ‘graffiti lit’ quality to some of McDevitt’s oeuvre, I’d be more inclined to compare him to another Smokestack poet, Sean Burn, whose dante at the laundrette was a strikingly polemical collection in a similarly avant-garde vein –as well as to, in some thematic senses, the exceptionally gifted Andrew Jordan, author of Bonehead’s Utopia (also Smokestack) and the more recent, labyrinthine conceptual masterwork Hegemonick (Shearsman) (all three latter titles previously reviewed on The Recusant).
Like the wizard or magician, McDevitt demonstrates a shamanic veneration for the resonant vibrations of words, and many of his poems have an incantatory mystique reminiscent of magical spells –in these senses his poetry has its own symbology, almost suggestive of ancient ‘grammarye’ (from which the word ‘grammar’ originates), or ‘magic/occult learning’. The influence of the Symbolist prodigy of the French fine de siecle, Arthur Rimbaud (i.e. Les Illuminations, ‘Une Saison en Enfer’/ ‘A Season in Hell’ et al), often adumbrates McDevitt’s oeuvre –and is most marked in Porterloo’s prose poems ‘Manna’ and ‘The Pharaoh’; as does that of the mid-twentieth century British surrealist poet, David Gascoyne (McDevitt includes at the back of this volume his own extended retrospective tribute to the latter poet, which begins with an aphorism from Gascoyne’s poem ‘Eros Absconditus’: ‘In blind content they breed who never loved a friend’).
The title of Porterloo is a portmanteau and pun on the neologism ‘portaloo’ (a portable loo/toilet of the likes often encountered at outdoors music festivals) with the superimposition of an ‘er’ over the ‘a’ to signpost the surname of the notorious former Conservative leader of Westminster City Council (1986-1991), ‘Dame’ Shirley Porter. This thoroughly odious woman masterminded the clandestine operation euphemised as ‘Building Stable Communities’, but exposed publicly for what it actually was, the ‘Homes for Votes Scandal’, which was very much a template for the kind of “Kosovo-style social cleansing” (Boris Johnson) the Tories are perpetrating today on a national scale through the pincer-movement of the Local Housing Allowance caps, Legal Aid cuts, bedroom tax, and anti-“squatting” legislation.
The so-called ‘Building Stable Communities’ programme did very much the opposite, in the tradition of duplicitous Tory-ese: it was essentially an undemocratic campaign of gerrymandering via ‘gentrification’ of the poorer districts of Westminster, which involved, amongst many other scandalous aspects, the selling off of vacated council houses, rather than re-letting them out to new tenants –which also paved the way towards today’s catastrophic housing shortage, which in turn prompted the Tories to dream up the reprehensible and instantly obsolete “spare room subsidy”, or bedroom tax, in order to trigger an “urban churn”, whereby those living in so-called “under-occupied” social and council houses are forced out by government-imposed rent shortfalls so that larger families presently trapped in cramped accommodation can move into them (rather than simply building more social and council housing). Basic human morality apart, the major practical flaw in all this is that there isn’t enough smaller and/or affordable accommodation available for the ‘smaller’ families to move into themselves (even if, on paper, the Tories’ probably presumed the whole thing would pan out like some national house swap –but with such a massive surplus of people needing homes at this time, the street homeless and temporarily accommodated included, the demand outstrips the supply).
But the most despicable aspect to the BSC stratagem was the mass ‘removal’ of ‘homeless voters and others who lived in hostels’, those very people most devastatingly hit by Thatcher’s atomistic social policies; most markedly, the equally euphemistic and duplicitous ‘Care in the Community’ (an imposed Diaspora of mental health patients following the cost-cutting mass closures of ‘Victorian’-style psychiatric hospitals), which, in itself, helped inflate the already mushrooming epidemic of street homelessness (mostly because there weren’t any actual communities left intact to care for them, as a result of several years’ Tory atomisation, and associated skyrocketing unemployment, as if to prove Thatcher’s pernicious dictum that “there is no such thing as society”, read ‘community’) –something never before seen on such a scale in this country, culminating in the national disgrace of ‘Cardboard City’, just outside Waterloo Station.
And such morally reprehensible neglect of rudimentary human rights to shelter and sustenance has over the decades become something of a habit-forming psychopathology at Westminster Council, as reported on exactly three years ago (March 2011) in the Daily Mirror, when it was revealed that moves were afoot to not only criminalise the very street homelessness the Tory-led government was athletically creating, but also to ban charities from running soup kitchens, and to make it a prosecutable offence for members of the public to “give out food for free” to homeless people. If ever there was evidence of a Tory directive to accelerate a reduction in the street homeless by effectively starving as many of them to death as possible, here it was:
THEY spent much of the run-up to the election trying shake off their image as the nasty party. But a heartless group of Tories have revealed their true colours by banning charities from running soup kitchens for the homeless.
Conservative Westminster council in Central London also wants to make it an offence to sleep rough–while slashing £5million of funding to hostels. Astonishingly, town hall chiefs claimed soup kitchens only “encourage” people to sleep on the streets.
[The only ‘offence’ in having people sleeping rough is the moral offence to basic principles of so-called ‘Christian’ civilisation that sees thousands of people forced to rot on the streets due to government abdication of responsibility. And the Humpty Dumpty-like anti-argument that somehow soup kitchens “encourage” people to choose to sleep out in dangerous and overexposed circumstances is just the kind of almost Hitlerian anti-‘logic’ that we’ve also seen since in Tory assertions that more people are using food banks because there are more food banks –hence implying people just go to them to take advantage of free food, not because they’re driven to it through hunger and malnutrition created by Tory policy].
Westminster council, one of the richest in the land, wants to bring in a bylaw making it an offence to “give out food for free”, punishable by fines. The twisted move blows apart David Cameron’s Big Society boast that an army of volunteers will flock to help those worse off.
And it sparked a storm of criticism. Reverend Alison Tomlin of the Methodist church in Westminster said: “The proposals are nothing short of disgusting. This bylaw punishes people solely for their misfortune and belongs in a Victorian statute book, not the 21st century.”
Labour’s London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone added: “Only the Conservatives would try to make it illegal to give food to the homeless. With Tory mayor Boris Johnson cutting affordable housing to a trickle, the number of people sleeping on the streets is rising and cuts to housing benefit threaten thousands more with eviction and homelessness.”
A consultation paper says rough sleeping and soup runs would be banned in the Westminster Cathedral Piazza and surrounding area. Labour said the cruel move comes as the council withdraws funding for three hostels in the borough and housing trust.
But Westminster’s Daniel Astaire risked provoking further fury by declaring free food “keeps people on the street longer”. He added: “Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.”
A council spokesman said soup runs attract up to 100 people at a time, “making it a no-go area for residents, with issues around litter, urination, violence and disorder”.
[Another world-beating piece of Tory reality-denial and ‘moral insanity’ from Mr Astaire: certainly “soup runs have no place in the 21st century”, as neither do their causes: the atrocious and inhuman social policies that necessitate them! It is “undignified”, indeed, for people to have to be “fed on the streets” –but the solution isn’t to just stop it happening by simply pretending the rising need for it isn’t there and rapidly increasing to an epidemic, but to actually solve the root of the problem: escalating abject poverty and homelessness accelerated by Tory policy. To argue in such a duplicitous, twisted way as this rather like if the Nazis had argued that “It is undignified that Jews are being beaten up on the streets”, while simultaneously ordering for Jews to be beaten up on the streets, or implying that therefore rounding them up into concentration camps and gassing them out of public view is somehow more humane; or, in the case of the Tories' absurd ‘logic’ with regards to an increase in food banks, as if the Nazis had argued that “more Jews are occupying concentration camps because there are more concentration camps”. This is a kind of tautologous evasiveness; a reversal of logic, so that effect is put before cause, and then, perversely, blamed as the cause of its own effect. This is the kind of Sphinxian Doublethink and rhetoric which McDevitt's verse so effectively satirises.
And such back-to-front 'thought' oils the mythology of ‘choice’ which Tories seem unfailingly subscribe to, and project into the lives of their own social victims, but crucially, anmd vindictively, only once they have done their utmost to strip them of any choices (rather like voodoo practitioners saying to their victims, 'Why are you letting me stick pins in your simulacrum?'). Poverty, destitution, despair and suicide are all, apparently, “lifestyle choices”, according to the morally illiterate Tory book of life. It’s a satanicisation of logic: blame the altruistic auspices brought in to deal with a problem caused by government policy for the problem it has come into being to alleviate. Just as the Tories have argued on the issue of housing benefit expenditure, that it has somehow driven up private rent levels when it is, obviously, the complete opposite case: the absence of rent controls or proper rent regulations (abolished by the Tories in the early Nineties) has given licence to private landlords to keep hiking up their rents with impunity, and uninterruptedly, for over twenty years –hence the ‘housing benefit bubble’ in budgetary response to unaffordable rents. The net results of both ‘approaches’ to ‘solving’/obfuscating these complex issues is to abjectly pauperise entire sections of society, thus solving absolutely nothing at all, just making it much worse than it already was, but, pivotally, ingratiating the government with “the taxpayer” in the process. Not only are today’s Tories unreconstructed, they’re actually completely morally deconstructed altogether: they’ve now stooped from ‘Homes for Votes’ to ‘Corpses for Votes’.
Yes, to anyone with any rudimentary sense of human compassion and morality, such attitudes and practices are almost beyond belief; but in Tory circles, it’s just a case of basic Malthusian pragmatics. Increasingly one can see just how detrimental to political culture, at least at a local level, ‘Porterism’ has proven down the last couple of decades, and is certainly a much lesser-cited companion ‘-ism’ –and arguably even more vile and venal– to Thatcherism. But, as Irish comedian Jimmy Cricket used to put it, ‘There’s more…’…
Porter, also heiress of the rapacious Tesco dynasty, added further cultural blight to her already ignominious CV by expanding said company’s presence so ubiquitously throughout the country that today you’re more likely to have a Tesco store on your local high street than a newsagent or post office, let alone those countless old independent grocers that have long been transplanted by the parasitic supermarket giant whose strap-line ‘Every Little Bit Helps’ is about as duplicitous and open to interpretation as the Tories’ ‘We’re All In This Together’. The only retail sights perhaps approaching the omnipresence of the deeply dispiriting red white and blue of Tesco today are the cultural detritus of 99p, pay day loan and Cash for Gold stores, and the less flashy Trussell Trust food banks (some volunteers of which, with monumental irony, are permitted by Tesco to pitch outside some of their stores and ask customers for donations of tins of food and the like purchased under the Tesco brand).
The cover of Porterloo depicts Porter with the body of a falcon –a kind of ‘Dame’ Porter Harpy, or Porter thought form– with what initially resembles a glowing halo above her head, but which is, on closer inspection (and in allusion to the ‘loo’ part of the title), a gold-plated toilet seat. Apparently, Porter possessed such a posterior Midas-touch for purposes of her own private evacuations (alluded to by McDevitt in the title poem as ‘gold-rimmed chaise de euphemism’ –oh touché!); this is confirmed in the last of a series of quotes under the umbrella-title of ‘AFTERTHOUGHTS’, at the back of the book, by Labour MP and ‘Porter impeacher’ Peter Bradley (a quote from whom is also excerpted in the book’s eponymous poem –see later):
On 9 January 2002, Shirley Porter disclosed in a sworn affidavit that she had no more than £300,000-worth of assets worldwide. Then, according to the Daily Mirror, she went on a £90,000 cruise in the Pacific. The Metropolitan police are now investigating whether she committed perjury and are seeking the view of the Crown Prosecution Service on whether there is sufficient evidence to pursue a prosecution. Belatedly, in February 2003, a disclosure order was awarded that she should reveal her control of or interest in worldwide trusts. She failed to comply with that order. By July 2003, Westminster city council had paid lawyers some £400,000 to track her assets—and recovered £3,000 and a gold-plated toilet seat.
But Porterloo is also a part pun on and portmanteau of ‘Peterloo’, the bitter sobriquet given to the 1819 protest at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, commonly known as the Peterloo Massacre, in which up to 15 Chartists –protestors against high unemployment, the corrupt scourge of ‘rotten/pocket boroughs’ (tiny and under-populated constituencies which were effectively ‘bought up’ by local landowners –mostly Tory– through bribery of voters, electoral advantage and familial nepotism, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, not abolished until 1867), and for greater representational democracy and wider male suffrage (the right to vote)– were killed, and 700 injured, by a sabre-drawn cavalry charge. By way of emphasizing the battle-like nature of this confrontation on domestic turf, and only four years after the famous British victory against Napoleon at Waterloo, ‘Peterloo’ was itself both a pun and a portmanteau of ‘Peter’s Field’ and ‘Waterloo’ –thus making Porterloo a pun on a pun, and a portmanteau on a portmanteau.
But I’d argue this adds extra dimensions to the title’s resonance, not just in terms of its political and social historical references, but also in its linguistic signification of how history repeats itself. Indeed, the only real difference between Peterloo, and the horse-charge by the metropolitan police against the student protestors in London 2010, is that the electrical lashes of tasers have replaced the more fatal lashes of sabres; it is, therefore, not at all hyperbolic of McDevitt to, at least symbolically, link these two vicissitudes. The Peterloo Massacre was also made famous in literature, being the prime inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s revolutionary rallying-call in verse, The Masque of Anarchy, subtitled ‘Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester’, but which wasn’t actually published until 1832, after restrictions on the political presses in England were finally relaxed, when it appeared in radical periodical The Examiner.
Poignantly, Porterloo is dedicated to McDevitt’s recently departed father, ‘Michael McDevitt (1926-2012), Irish liberal, who passed away on William Blake’s birthday’ (28th November) –a date of great astrological significance to the son, being himself hugely influenced by the Blakean canon of poetry and mysticism. Porterloo is introduced by Heathcote Williams, veteran playwright (most famous for the groundbreaking, R. D. Laing-antagonising stage play, AC/DC), actor, poet, verse-maverick, and ex-Grand Vizier of ‘Frestonia’, a 120-strong squat on a patch of lawn in 1970s West London which declared its independent sovereignty from the rest of Great Britain (and counted among its illuminati the late great David Rappaport –most famous as Randall in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981)– as its Foreign Minister). Williams is himself a prolific contemporary ‘agit-poet’, a self-proclaimed rhyming ‘refusenik’, and a regular contributor to the recently revived International Times, which he and McDevitt co-edit.
Williams’ intro, titled ‘Insurgent Poetry’, contextualises McDevitt’s place in the evolving lineage of protest poetry, suggesting at one point that this type of verse might be called ‘Peterloo poetry’ (emphatically not to be confused with Harry Chambers’ Peterloo Poets in Cornwall). But McDevitt’s oeuvre also incorporates something he and Williams have at certain points alluded to as ‘pidgin’ poetry, from the phrase ‘Pidgin language’, referring to a form of ‘simplified’ lingo between certain groups who don’t share a common language –it’s of course meant largely figuratively, though occasionally there are certain words and phrases which recur throughout McDevitt’s work that bespeak this itch towards some form of abbreviated counter-hegemonic lingo, and these aspects mark a potent form of verbal subversion.
Williams’ intro also highlights a press cutting detailing McDevitt’s spirited attempt at interrupting a public lecture by insidiously right-wing historian Niall Ferguson –Niall versus Niall– whose chief accolade, as Williams reminds us, is to have with a grating crassness, insisted that the concept of “conquest” is misguided, since Ferguson regards imperialism as liberation’:
“Security men removed a self-styled ‘shamanistic poet’, Niall McDevitt, from the lecture, when he accused Prof Ferguson of trying to ‘alleviate guilt’ [about the empire], while reciting a poem in pidgin on the imperial legacy in the New Hebrides islands in the Pacific”.
It’s also interesting to note that during his recent televised dialectic on the pros and cons of Britain entering the First World War, Tory historian Niall Ferguson proclaimed highly influential left-wing historian A.J.P. Taylor as his ‘idol’ –the same A.J.P. Taylor who once wrote on Toryism thus in his review of Keith Feiling’s A History of England (1950) in the New Statesman (later collected in Essays in English History (1977), ‘Chapter 2. Tory History’:
If Toryism means anything, it rejects the sovereignty of parliament and the doctrine of the Social Contract… Toryism rests on doubt in human nature; it distrusts improvement, clings to traditional institutions, prefers the past to the future.
Perhaps this is part of the Tory rationale that finds no contradiction or even quandary in holding dear to its heart, say, William Blake’s anti-capitalist revolutionary anthem ‘Jerusalem’, via Hubert Parry’s 1916 hymnodic orchestration; or socialist composer Gustav Holst’s setting of the trio melody ‘Thaxted’ from his strident ‘Jupiter’ to the vapid patriotism of Cecil Spring Rice’s lyrics, ‘I Vowe to Thee My Country’: because these works, their authors, composers and original sources are all safely tucked away in the past, are historical, and thus now traditions misted in national nostalgia –and their mystification, the obfuscation of their ideological roots for a vaguer homologous mythologisation, are symptomatic of the wilful superficiality of Tory thought in general. I’m reminded of the aphoristic speech in the film Shadowlands (1993), ventriloquised by screenwriter William Nicholson through the mouth of C.S. Lewis:
I'm not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up! We think our childish toys bring us all the happiness there is. And our nursery is the whole wide world. But something... something must drive us out of the nursery, to the world of others. And that something is suffering.
In my own opinion -and no doubt McDevitt's- it is the distinct absence of this kind of spirit-shaking ‘suffering’, and the intensified empathy for others which it precipitates, which characterises Toryism; no doubt Tories, like anyone else, have suffered in their lives in some respects, but disputably not to sufficient degrees as to ‘drive’ them ‘out of the nursery’. Nicholson's C.S. Lewis also says:
I suppose some people would say we love to know we are not alone. But why love if losing it hurts so much? I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I have been given the choice: as a boy… and as a man. The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal.
But not, in my opinion, the ‘deal’ for Tories: they, like the ‘boy’, have chosen 'safety' and somehow –mostly through the cushioning of high privilege– have not yet had to relinquish it: their ‘happiness’ has no ‘pain’ in the senses C.S. Lewis means it: the ‘pain’ applies only to others, to opponents and victims, partly as a direct result of how ferociously and remorselessly Tories protect their sense of ‘safety’ –at any cost. We are all currently suffering in another profound sense today under the nursery tantrum of austerity, the throwing out of toys, inflicted on us by Tories in order for their kind to keep themselves and their vested interests in a state of 'safety', a kind of antinomian state of grace. Of course, current Tory rhetoric would seem on the surface to be give the very opposite impression of a 'nursery' mentality: they are after all making the "tough choices" and "difficult decisions" which, unlike their predecessors, they'll not flinch from. But it's very easy -if untroubled by conscience- to make "tough choices" and "difficult decisions" when the ramifications of these only affect others and not oneself. The Tories might make the decisions, but they don't make the sacrifices -that's for everyone else to do, and the poorest and most vulnerable, those with the least to loose, in particular.
But to return to Williams’ intro: it also cites the Peterloo Massacre, emphasizing that it occurred, funnily enough, under another Tory government– serves as a compendious précis on the volume, and its last few paragraphs warrant quoting in full:
A Neil Oram quote was once used as epigraph to an anthology of contemporary French poetry which simply said "What is going on is a war between those who believe in poetry and those who don't". Niall McDevitt, also, is a staunch believer in poetry as an instrument of change, poetry designed to create a new mindset where, for example, the homeless in ‘tent cities’ being blasted by water cannons can be firewalled by poetry.
In this collection there’s a sonnet to a delusional monarchist; a compassionate poem to a boy wrongly imprisoned for being disrespectful to a nation’s fetish object sacred to militarism; a report on the essential blasphemy of a coke-sniffing Tory coming to Avalon, to “take the air Tories want to sell”. McDevitt singles him out in his pin-striped suit quixotically trying to bludgeon the spirit of Glastonbury into re-accepting the Norman yoke and then fatefully dying in the festival’s notorious toilets. There’s a fine reappraisal of the radical surrealist Christian poet, David Gascoyne who was snubbed by stiff-necked Eliot. “True Christian poetry is a critique of Christendom” as McDevitt says, “which is, after all, the superstructure of capitalism.”
And in ‘THE HUMAN ELEPHANT (in the inhuman room)’, the poet makes a plea for the “socially cleansed”, by declaring war on those who declare war on underclasses whom they dehumanize with varying expressions of contempt such as ‘nutters’ ‘sickos’ ‘ferals’ ‘sluts’ – thanks, in McDevitt’s telling phrase, to their “mindcuffs of conservatism”. The tone is irrepressibly zestful, savagely witty, and often gleeful. If Porterloo’s title subject were ever to return she couldn’t begin to recognise how the country now ferments, nor how it is being fuelled by poetry, the country she absconded from but still profits by, the country that does not wish to be a supermarket carpark stretching for as far as the eye can see.
There’s a sticker currently which depicts a rat and the anarchist logo. It reads “You’re never more than ten feet from a Tory.” Never far, in McDevitt’s words, from being “stopped searched and stripped of benefits by Gradgrinds, Scrooges and Dedlocks”. Hence these insurgent waves.
As opposed to the political imposture of 81 Austerities, Porterloo is emphatically a poetry manifesto of its times. It’s set out in four sections titled, respectively, “P” (no doubt standing for the book’s title, but possibly also a part-riposte for Tony Harrison’s iconic Thatcher-era political poem “V”), ‘The Quibbala’ (which sounds as if it’s probably a pun on the Kabbalah), ‘Fucku’ and ‘A Thousand’ –the latter two both partitioned longer poems. The first section kicks off with a contemporaneous poem on the Occupy encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, ‘The Early Christians’, subtitled ‘Tent City 2012’. This is an apposite and provocative poem, juxtaposing the largely youthful Occupy movement –very much the modern day equivalent to the seventeenth century radical Christian and proto-Communist ‘Digger’ movement of the likes of Gerard Winstanley– with the early, recalcitrant cult of Christianity, though McDevitt’s ethical refuseniks are a more visceral breed, and evoked in visceral language:
too exotic for graphs or stats, and originally from republics,
we burn in the latest mathematics, angry with the kabbala,
ten trees chopped down. we see through cheap
disguises to what we are: the poor. look at our tents,
blue-red-green domes, tattered copies of the gold.
poor, but we fuck in the streets. no one
can measure the emotions here. contrary to right-wing fallacy
we are not envious. of them?
for manna, try ideas.
for integrity, look at our sores..
ever heard of dissentiment?
we are karaoke politicians, earning eloquence
as voices from passing taxis
‘lazy arses!’ and ‘divas!’.
there’s no more dinner parties, nothing bourgeois,
illusions clog the portaloos.
we are what we have always been,
provocateurs come with free industrial-strength lager:
a miracle. …
The neologistic noun 'dissentiment' is a classic McDevittism. The de-capitalisation of the first letters of each sentence might be interpreted as a kind of textual recalcitrance complementary to the recalcitrance of the poem’s polemical context. It’s a technique reminiscent of, among other exponents, the aforementioned Sean Burn and Paul Summers. I do also note the influence of David Gascoyne in this and many other poems throughout the book, mostly in phrasal and aphoristic terms, as well as in keen imagistic and colouristic qualities; McDevitt is somewhat less ‘surrealist’ as Gascoyne, though his imageries are no less vivid, striking and refulgent, and his descriptions often have a graphic quality. But McDevitt’s verse is driven by a very visceral energy, which is less Gascoynian than Lawrentian.
‘The Early Christians’ is in many ways a series of aphorisms spliced together, but, impressively, without any sense of breakage in the polemical narrative. The last trope excerpted comes across as an irreverent riff on transubstantiation, but a poignant one given the context; as well as touching on the irony of alcohol as a kind of chemical conductor of radical tendencies, since arguably it is also their inhibitor, and, from such an angle, a cynical product of capitalist production –the ‘liquid opium of the masses’.
‘Letter to Charlie Gilmour’ (aka ‘The Cenotaph Yob’), as its endnote informs, is a poem which was ‘sent to Charlie Gilmour in Wayland Prison, Norfolk – a fortnight before his release – as an antidote to all the hate-mail he was receiving)’, the eponymous youngster being the stepson of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour (and biological son of Heathcote Williams). Young Gilmour was imprisoned for swinging from the flagpole of the Cenotaph during the student riots against trebled tuition fees in late 2010. In something of a riot of verse, McDevitt takes his verbal scalpels to the Establishment cadaver, which he depicts as a grotesque amalgam of dead things, an immovable Leviathan petrified in time’s taxidermy, like the mummified auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham still exhibited behind glass in its wooden cabinet at University College London:
the great red bus of freedom that this country really is
in its Green Man soul, its fish belly, its ales and Mab dispensations.
The statues, limousines, wigs and truncheons who’ve trussed you up
have no human souls, no animism, are but ghoulish things, doomed to
their bleak houses of law, their Dickensian Chancery morgues
The poem is an almost stream-of-consciousness tirade, rich with potent symbols and animalistic images:
It seems you asked a long-deceased statue for the last waltz,
maypoling about a war memorial without due solemnity or sobriety,
displaying, rather, all the body language of a circus chimpanzee,
later hopping onto the bonnet of the royal dodgem-car
as it was trying to enjoy an impromptu black bloc safari…
I particularly like that latter image, which ingeniously depicts the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall on an ‘impromptu’ tour of the riots in their limousine, as if on some kind of ‘sociological safari’ to witness ‘feral’ youth in its urban habitat through the safety of a windscreen; or like visitors to Windsor Safari Park, winding up their windows as the monkeys jump up, only to suddenly have their bonnet leapt on by one particularly wild human-‘monkey’, our young Mr Gilmour. This inspired juxtaposition jumps into the reader’s view too, and is nicely framed in aphorism without being over-emphasized. There follows the parenthesised trope, ‘(Sorry if I’ve got it all wrong. I have only militant media reports to rely on)’, the first clause of which becomes a part-refrain throughout the poem. The declaratory, or exclamatory tone of ‘Letter’, its almost tangential style, and rangy lines, is –as with some others of McDevitt’s oeuvre– reminiscent of both Arthur Rimbaud and Howl-era Allen Ginsberg:
Ah drunkenness, ah dancing in the puckish and syrupy streets
is what the youth should be striving to excel at. Ah leopards!
Ah Mrs. Windsor, goddess of the slot-machines, dumpier in the jowl.
Today l’Anglaise—as Verlaine called Victoria—has changed the law
to allow little cot-queenies aspire to the throne, ‘a female vote-catcher’
said a demobbed soldier to me, chez Wetherspoon,
and speaking of wendy palaces, today they also talked of changing the law
to allow ‘tent cities’ to be blasted by water cannons. It’s weird.
As with Ginsberg’s verse, and that of much of the Beats (e.g. also Lawrence Ferlinghetti) –all of whom owed much debt to Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane– McDevitt’s verse is oratorical: for reading, or howling, aloud. Its occasional mantra-like aspects are often combined by McDevitt with the iambic beat of his hand-drum when he performs them in public, more palpably emphasising his shamanic sensibilities. Here, as in others of his poems, the mystical aura of William Blake is summoned –for Blake is very much the psychopompos of McDevitt’s poetry:
Another law they changed—not today—was that of hanging the young
at Tyburn, ‘fatal brook’ of Blake:
18th century hoodies good for nothing but breeding
19th century hoodies good for nothing but breeding
20th century hoodies good for nothing but breeding
all the usual chavs and chav-nots
Tory druidry Tory grotesqueries
where a cabal of brandy-drinkers has the right to dispense with the lives
of people they know nothing about and like even less
McDevitt is a peripatetic apostle of psychogeography (pace in prose: Iain Sinclair, Ken Worpole etc.) and regularly conducts tours of those parts of London most resonantly steeped in the ectoplasms of poetic histories. An imbiber of the capital’s vast urban environment, McDevitt is almost the psychical composite of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys and the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and might, in part, subscribe to a subverted paraphrasing of Samuel Johnson’s famous aphorism: when a man is tired of life, he tries out London. It is this deep, curatorial reverence for the past, a tangible nostalgia, which leavens the avant-garde architecture of McDevitt’s verse, and raises it above the flat-back vistas of rootless postmodernist experiments:
After they changed that law, they also changed the place-name
from Tyburn to Marble Arch, from Tyburn Road to Oxford Street,
airbrushing 700 years of human sacrifice under the historical carpet
and sluiced the Tyburn river of blood underground,
symbolically, for they are fish-hooked on symbols. (Sorry if
I’ve got it all wrong. I have only militant history books to rely on.)
Here, as elsewhere, McDevitt rips up the polished granite paving slabs of urban gentrification to remind us of the skeletons buried underneath. It’s a kind of verse-archaeology –McDevitt is the poet with a pen in one hand, and a trowel in the other (while a quill is firmly clenched between his teeth). He is as outraged at the Judge Jeffreys-style “exemplary sentences” (Cameron) dished out to the rioters of recent years as the rest of the poetry world should have been, and rightly rails at these natural injustices –since law is one thing, but justice, certainly natural justice, is quite clearly very much another:
This year what they’ve done to the student rioters, the London rioters
and the English rioters, is an echo of Tyburn—as is the word Taliban—
(though the pro-capitalist punishment lobby are working on it)
but still an all-too-public punishment, all-too-out of proportion,
a fundamentalism of window-dressing, a paganism of scapegoating,
a Puritanism of dirty linen Daz-washing, an oxymoronic
hanging the young out to spin-dry,
But this surging wave of a poem ends on an almost rhapsodic crescendo:
but the dragons in the underbelly don’t mind them
for the gods of the hop are the goldest in this hemisphere
and the youth will grow his clipped wings back whiter
to swan-beat the drums of Thames-consciousness…
Here is the poem’s contextualisation from the original promotional article for Porterloo:
The first subject he found to treat on a bigger canvas was the imprisonment of Charlie Gilmour in 2010 for swinging from the Cenotaph flag. Sentenced to 16 months, Gilmour was being vilified in the Daily Mail and deluged with hatemail from its readers. As an antidote to this hatemail, McDevitt wrote an epistle, ‘Letter to Charlie Gilmour (aka ‘The Cenotaph Yob’)’, a poem in four sections which catches the mood of the 2010 riots but also meditates on one of the darkest episodes in English history i.e. the public hangings at Tyburn.
The Rimbaudian ‘The Human Elephant’, subtitled ‘(in the inhuman room)’, aptly quotes from Rimbaud, and is inscribed ‘for the socially cleansed’ (a now commonly used phrase taken from, ironically, Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson’s comment that he’d have no “Kosovo-style cleansing” on his watch, referring to the Tory-driven welfare caps and bedroom tax which constitute a mass Malthusian ‘gentrification’ of the poorest districts of Britain’s cities on a scale which dwarfs that of Shirley Porter’s Westminster-concentrated monstrous misnomer, ‘Building Sustainable Communities’). Here’s the contextualisation from International Times’ promotion of the volume:
Other poems lament social cleansing in London and the banishment of the underclass from their homes, their boroughs, their city. ‘The Human Elephant (in the inhuman room)’, a concrete poem with verses shaped like council-housing mansion-blocks, has been widely praised.
The title of this poem is no doubt an allusion to the phrase ‘elephant in the room’, which is a metaphor for a crucial, highly contentious and sometimes perceptibly insoluble issue, wilfully ignored, in spite of its huge and ubiquitous presence, by those responsible for its resolution. McDevitt’s numbered stanzas are in the form of poetic prose (with the emphasis on poetic), chunks of poetic text shaped into near-prose paragraphs, with sentences, again, of de-capitalised first letters. In an endnote McDevitt describes the layout as a ‘‘concrete poem’ …inspired by the depopulated Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle… first performed in situ at an event organized by the Urban Forest’ –and in terms of the typographical arrangement or shape of text on the page, much of McDevitt’s oeuvre comes under a broad ideogrammatic umbrella. Both in terms of the importance of its contentious subject –paramount to all humanitarians today– and its approach to the subject, ‘The Human Elephant’ is a potent and purposeful poem. Here are some excerpts of what for me are the most striking tropes in the six stanzas:
it is come, the time of our decanting. …
…goodbye to our streets in the air, hello
to pound shops and charismatic chapels. we had mystical mansions, we
had 1000 keys, so they jealously took it away, who cannot understand
our tribal croaks, our medicine men, our ghetto aromas, our pirate
smiles. six castles of communism loomed worryingly large for them….
only Glasspool is left…
…our houses, our shops were illumined by the original
planners who had based everything on light, on sunlight, and we could
buy anything, the spices of earth, from neighbours who lived in the same
lighting, whose living-rooms were also chemists, launderettes, hairdressers,
shebeens. 'environmental determinism' says Glasspool. verily, the
overclass envies the underclass, covets what the other doesn’t have
when the communal heating system stopped, we resorted to small
convector heaters. they trash any commune, any communing. the big
dystopia kills off little utopias. when the communal heating system
stopped, we felt the Cold War creeping back under our psychedelic
snake draught-excluders. …
nor were we decanted politely. no pinkies were extended to us. the war
on brutalism was brutalist. savagely they gentrify (never once suspecting
how nice we are). the streets in the air are an empty estate, a flotation
…we fondly remember the vomit running up
our oesophagi, his tigrish chrism. but as his hug was the beginning
of the end for Gaddaffi, his eulogy was a kick in the balls of Cockaigne
here the human elephant (inhuman castle) in a graffiti-rich greyness,
a welcoming Hel, empty rooms in the endangered species…
the 40-year day, an affordable toilet, a criminal idyll, more robinhood
than neighbourhood (so the thesis went …
…oh the flushed ova!
'shooting an elephant' wrote Orwell, a guilty authority. we have been
…they are only killing our living-rooms, amazing as they were.
let the ill-affordable houses come, clad in trespa, and let those who can ill
afford them piss into ladyporterloos. …
I’m sure McDevitt will forgive the ellipses throughout these excerpts but, apart from space limits, I’m sure he’d not want his poems from Porterloo extracted verbatim page by page as then it’d start to undermine the point of the book version. But what can be gathered from these extensive quotes is, again, this poet’s prodigious investment in figurative language, image and symbol, in order to put across what is not simply a ‘polemical argument’ but a ‘sensibility’, an individualised yet community-oriented system of thought and perception –a ‘philosophy’ in a sense– in which an inalienable vocabulary of the culturally and/or socially ‘alienated’ (if that’s not a contradiction), or a marginalised ‘pidgin’ lingo (‘tigrish chrism’, for instance…?), is symbiotic to its communication –as is the ‘concrete’ typographical shape; and this method of communication is one of ‘signification’: the use of ‘signs’.
In a similar manner to which some of the poems in McDevitt’s debut b/w (most blatantly the brilliant ‘ODE TO THE DOLE’) cultivated a kind of satirical counter-stigmatisation on behalf of the ‘lumproletariat’ (or ‘lumpenpoetariat’ as the case may be) by presenting unemployment as some sort of unapologetic ‘bedsit capitalism’, thus employing the dysphemisms of ubiquitous “scrounger” rhetoric from the stigmatising red-tops as weapons against them (in a similar way to how some mental health groups, for example, re-appropriate such terms as ‘mad’, or gay groups, the term ‘queer’, as means to self-empowerment and dialectical self-assertion; since, as in accordance with ancient ‘superstition’, but still, unconsciously, the case in ‘scientific’ culture, the ‘owning’ of a name or noun, as a descriptor of an object or person, carries with it a kind of ‘magical’ power, or psychical advantage) –in ‘The Human Elephant’, McDevitt subverts the topic of the poem by acting as a verse-ventriloquist, throwing through the mouths of the impoverished victims of ‘urban redevelopment’/‘gentrification’/‘eviction’/‘social cleansing’ a tone of entitled loftiness in poverty, of utopian penury, and a sense of superiority to their corporate persecutors, which is completely at odds with their actual victimisation and vulnerability. As with the lines:
we've been decanted and pepperpotted–in spite of because of our ‘iconic’ status– from our gridded elevations, from our streets in the air, having refused to hand in identities, or give DNA samples
the phrasings imply that the vulnerable inhabitants of the soon-to-be-‘depopulated’ estate are being evicted by a remorseless drive of envy, and also that they have somehow had some choice or say in whether or not to conform to punitive police checks (by dint of their fancied impunity of elevation). The effect of such satirically charged ‘arrogance-in-adversity’ is to re-emphasise the injustices perpetrated against these people, in light of the circumstantial absurdity of their sanguinity. (Coincidentally, there was an article by David Sillitoe in The Guardian on the day of posting up this review, documenting in word and photograph the decline of another brutalist post-war estate, Park Hill in Sheffield, originally a habitable monument to the legacy of 1930s slum clearances, transplanting a community of delpidated back-to-backs which used to be known as ‘Little Chicago’ for its rampant crime rates; the replacement estate was part of the postwar building programme, its planners inspired by Le Corbusier’s Brutalist architecture, officially opened in 1961 by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, but, by the Eighties, neglected and grafitti-ridden through the effects of Thatcher’s atomisation of the Sheffield steel industry and subsequent epidemic unemployment; and today, pickings for commercial developers Urban Splash. Most poignantly, and inkeeping with the imagery of McDevitt’s poem on Heygate, Park Hill was envisioned in utopian terms as facilitating “streets in the sky’, where milk floats would trundle along broad decks, stopping at front doors, as if they were in a normal street’).
Another key aspect to McDevitt’s significations is the sprinkling of ‘brand’ names –in this poem’s case, ‘trespa’ (Trespa), brand name of a type of high-pressure laminate (HPL) plate used in modern interiors. This particular brand name is semantically serendipitous, since it happens to be formed from the first six letters of the word trespass, which in the context of this poem, has much symbolism (is it the corporate ‘depopulators’, or the recalcitrant tenants, who are the trespassers?). This satirical receptiveness to brand names and commercial memes again recalls ee cummings’ ‘Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal’, as well as echoing some of Louis MacNiece’s anomic poems of alienation in consumerist society from his Thirties period.
There’s also the curious name ‘Glasspool’ mentioned a couple of times in the poem, which I’d misdiagnosed after a bit of Googling as referring to RL Glasspool Charity Trust, which provides ‘small one-off grants to individuals in need’… But I’ve since had some help in the hermeneutical process by McDevitt himself, who elucidates that his reference is to an individual, Adrian Glasspool, a leasholding inhabitant of the Heygate Estate, who was the last person to be evicted by Southwark Council. Glasspool, clearly in sympathy with the socialist aspirations of the estate’s postwar planners, defied a Council spokesperson’s verbal demolition of the “brutalist concrete buildings” by commenting at the time: “Perhaps the utopian ideal of social housing is unpopular in the eyes of some people these days but I wouldn't say people living in it share that view”. But who –in this age of intransigent ‘focus groups’ and predecided ‘choices’ thrown as sops to a powerless public– is interested in hearing the opinions of the actual occupants of an estate before it has the wrecking-ball swung through it?
Ultimately, the title ‘The Human Elephant’ would seem to point towards the fact that the real ‘elephant in the room’ for capitalism is, indeed, the ‘human’, or at least, the ‘authentic’ human personality (or its ‘potential’), and hence its auspices have to try and repress and arrest its development by training it towards material acquisitiveness, thereby enabling a stunted form of individual expression to be vented vicariously through objects, property, things (even, paradoxically, through the ‘brutalist’ elephant of the Heygate Estate itself) –all so the prime capitalist purpose of material exchange and transaction in the pursuit of profit towards ever more acquisitions can operate predictably and unhindered (albeit, in all spiritual and metaphysical senses, futilely). But there’s a further sublimeness to McDevitt’s choice of title and metaphor here: for what else are elephants famed for, apart from trunks, tusks and large flapping ears, but for their memories: an elephant, so the saying goes, ‘never forgets’ –and, unless they choose otherwise, neither do humans.
‘Let Us Celebrate Dickens’, subtitled ‘The Charles Dickens Bicentenary 2012’, was introduced in the IT blurb thus: ‘surgically exposes the hollowness and hypocrisy of the Dickens celebrations in 2012’. It is a sharp and succinct satirical verse which could well have been called ‘What the Dickens!’, or even ‘Carry On Dick’, given the grotesque, almost blackly comical spectacle of the Capital rapidly returning to a similar state it was at the time of Dickens’ birth, thanks to the Tory cuts and fiscal cleansings, as if by way of ‘interactive’ and ‘experiential’ reconstruction of London 1812. Indeed, when one considers the escalating street homelessness piling up rapidly under Tory policies and platitudes, and the scandalous exploitation and humiliation of scores of unemployed claimants bussed into the capital in a mobile workhouse and left overnight under a rain-dripping bridge to be ready and alert in tabards to compulsorily ‘volunteer’ as ‘stewards’ during the Ruritanian spectacle of the Queen’s Jubilee that same year, the Dickensian parallels seem more and more apposite and less and less hyperbolic.
The crowning irony being of course that among the first people who would have howled with outrage at such inhumane treatment of the poor and unemployed would have been Dickens himself, who was in many ways the ‘social conscience’-through-fiction of his times (bar George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in the more rural spheres). Suitably, McDevitt peppers this verse with Dickensian allusions, couching them amid contemporary terms and acronyms –to emphasise just how interrelated 2012 and 1812 actually are. I excerpt this poem in full, as it’s only four stanzas, but due to formatting limitations I’m unable to present it with the strikethroughs –another ‘McDevittism’– which are supposed to spear through ‘NEDS’ and ‘fit as fiddlers’:
let us celebrate Dickens—England’s conscience—
as young NEDS (sorry) NEETS have no prospects
but to be stopped searched and stripped of benefits
by Gradgrinds Scrooges and Dedlocks
let us commemorate all things Dickensian
as the ‘Kosovo-style’ clean-up commences
and losers are mopped off the A to Z
to make his London fit for gold medallists
let us sentimentalise Dickens’ creations
as the disabled are forced to take physical tests
and—in a warped schmaltz denouement—
declared fit as fiddlers
able-bodied men and women
let us even enshrine Dickens in moral law
as legal aid is withdrawn from the poor
and Kafkaesque barriers are erected
saying: NO ROOM AT THE INNS
The punning phrase ‘fit as fiddlers’ is particularly topical in our current ‘scroungerphobic’ climate of purportedly ubiquitous “welfare fiddlers” (and, believe it or not, we’ve been here before: ‘scroungerphobia’ was a sociological sobriquet for a similarly hostile anti-welfare scaremongering in the Thatcher period, which formed the basis for the groundbreaking –and never bettered– polemic, Images of Welfare: ‘Press and Public Attitudes to Poverty’ (Peter Golding and Sue Middleton Martin, 1982), which reads as if it could have been written today; and for a dramatic companion-piece, I recommend Jim Allen's exceptional 1978 polemical TV play, The Spongers, which plays on much symbolic juxtaposition with the Queen's Silver Jubilee of 1977). From Her Majesty’s scapegoated ‘subjects’ to a verse missive written to an unnamed ‘poet’: ‘Sonnet to a Monarchist’, which a footnote mentions ‘…is a footnote to Heathcote Williams’ ‘Royal Babylon’ but is addressed to a very different poet’ (and which the IT promotion of the book contextualised criticising ‘a poet who has fallen under the spell of Prince Charles’) begins:
your dream of Arthur, Merlin and Taliesin
is a fantasy island, Conservatism in fancy dress…
and ends with suitable jab at establishments:
Wake up and see Arthur, Merlin and Taliesin
come back as Prince Charles, Paul Daniels and Andrew Motion.
Continuing in the anti-establishment vein comes ‘Elegy for Mrs Thatcher’, a Ginsbergian stream-of-consciousness anti-Tory mantra presented in a concrete block of text, which incants its way through the surnames of various leading Tories, past and present, pluralizing them as if talking of different species of true blue Lepidoptera:
pitts clampdown. thatchers detach. edens evict. pitts execute, pitilessly. edens
…thatchers don’t. edens evict from eden. porters socialise, porters clean, porters clean toilets, porters clean portaloos. porters, thatchers also suffer. porters port, thatchers thatch. thatchers milksnatch, thatchers semi-detach. camerons milksnatch, camerons fully detach. porters gerrymander and embezzle, embezzle and gerrymander. porters abscond to the holy land…
…ids calculates how to be less beneficial…
…borises bluster. borises blub. borises bikeses are brought to you by barclayses bankses. freudses **** their motherses….
…Tories prefer the adams family to gerry adams. (torieses are the adamses.)
…porter is, thatcher is, ids is. ids is and ids isn’t. mays scare, mays scarify, mays are much scarier than muslims with hooks…
…porters inherit more tescos. thatchers wither. the withering away of the thatchers. thatcher is and isn’t. there is no such thing as
‘Description from a Red Bus’ (For Mike Lesser) is verse as image-deluge, rich in contemporary urban symbol and commercial meme of brand advertising, reminiscent in some stylistic aspects to ee cummings and John Ashbery, via Jeremy Reed’s contemporary hyper-metropolitan dystopian poetry, as well as recalling, again, the rangy lines and commercial images of Louis MacNiece’s Thirties period –but McDevitt’s brilliantly alliterative tangible-language has its own distinct energy and texture:
a gaggle of police at Western Circus adopting an aggressive, goose-like
of parted legs and forward-thrusted loins
but their body mass indexes are comically dwarfed from the top deck
recycling banks, cranes, New and Used Buildings Materials warehouses
in this industrial zone, north-west, rolling
and then a Thames-wide stretch of railway lines and wires, shining,
billboards reflect the fashionable corporate fascisms, the bullying
of SKY, Gordon Ramsay, talktalk etc.
competing for mass attention, on rented plinths…
suburban shopfronts, though, are not so glamorous or opulent,
just about owned by their smallholders, seedily stylish…
sudden colours of fruit-and-veg piled in plastic bowls—yellows,
outside Turkish or Pakistani or Iranian cornershops
flash like flags or rainbows in the drabness—glimpses of Rastafarian
two monolithic chimneys—smokeless—are dominant on the Church
of council houses, disused sites and playing fields
as robed women wheel their prams meditatively, some species
of dark bird, homing
African men, Somalis or Ethiopians, in assembly by a halal store
smoke, talk and smile, clenching bunches of khat, mostly elders
with tight curls greying,
semi-Westernised, wearing suit jackets over light-coloured, flowing,
a minicab firm called ‘Cheetah’, a café called ‘Tabriz’, a ‘Taj Mahal’
the large-scale swathe of graffiti on a red-bricked rooftop
is a meaningless tag…
…a kid with nothing to do, a narcissistic scrawl with no
message for the ages
along Walm Lane into Chichele Road… clumsily… bumpily…
clownishly… as in a silent movie
where the younger bloods are sprucely turned out, and pavanine
displaying a higher class of casualwear-cum-sportswear—
too good to fight in—
grinning from earplug to earplug as they strut, unworriedly
and who cannot savour the pax of these ramshackle suburbs
with all their dilapidated ghettoes, malls, gas-towers, chapels
and simpleton signs: ‘Great Deals Available’, ‘Jesus Loves You’,
close to The Tavern by Dersingham Road
with its wooden emblem of horses and carriages, mirroring the past
(more recent than distant)
the bus rides the tarmac road, glides on Golders Green rays
softening the tarmac road to liquorice as a senior citizen crosses
—to elsewhere, evidently—with stick and an orange recycling bag
swinging anarchically in wind
Such an agile, bounding, almost terpsichorean engagement with language as excerpted at length above is suggestive of a poet who immerses himself to saturation-point in the rudiments of modern life, taking everything in in his enivronment, so that the verse has the sense of having been lived; while the barrage of urban and commercial imagery –acutely observed and replicated– that snags every line, is everything that 81 Austerities could have been, but glaringly wasn’t. ‘Description from a Red Bus’ is an exceptional urban sprawl of a poem with a MacNiecean assuredness of phrase and image –to my mind, one of the most accomplished poems in Porterloo.
‘Mindcuffs’ is a kind of companion-piece to ‘Elegy for Mrs Thatcher’, another anti-Tory concrete poem that takes a semantic mallet to traumatise the traumatising ideology:
the cloud with mouths
utopias caged in books
language loses its flavour like pieces of chewing gum
(That’s a brilliant image!). Again, there’s an almost mantra-like quality here, with the incantatory repetition of conservatism, uttered like a malevolent whisper –the poem is almost an anti-mantra. There’s a quote included which might have come from the lips of Aneurin Bevan or the pen of Clement Attlee, but is actually from a more recent anonymous source, an irony-proof Tory ‘grandee’ who was apparently overheard –by socialist writer and columnist Owen Jones– saying this at a meeting:
‘What you have to realise about the Conservative Party is that it is a coalition
of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the
way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’
And, aptly, the poem comes to a close focusing on the (in-)convenient evil of privatisation, which incrementally and systematically alienates us from our own national resources through profit-driven partitioning, decreases efficiency and accountability of so-called ‘public services’ (cue the arrant hypocrisy of the Tories arguing that the London Underground should be exempt from the ‘right to strike’ by dint of being an ‘essential public service’, following the recent tube strike in protest against Tory-imposed redundancies of tube staff –but if the Tories truly think this to be the case, they’d not be cynically selling it off, ticket office by ticket office, to the private sector!), and, even more ruinously, determines government green policy through private sector corporate lobbying/bribery, continuing to pollute our natural environment, not for increased efficiency of services but simply for customer-fleecing profit:
goliath the philistine
the fruit-voiced liars
the woolly monolith
nation of tagged children
air, I need air
sea, I need sea
meet the frackers
His ‘finger on the pulse’ as ever, McDevitt highlights the potentially catastrophic environmental hazard of ‘fracking’, perhaps the ultimate act of natural vandalism by the auspices of anarcho-capitalism to date –but what’s a couple of tremors or minor earthquakes between elections? And, the activist village in Tory Sussex apart, there’s always the largely Labour-voting “barren North-east” to plunder. Of course, not only are we currently ‘governed’ by a bunch of Etonian ‘social cleansing’-deniers: they are also mostly inveterate dissenters of the otherwise watertight scientific case for global warming, violently reconfirmed in recent years through escalating tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and, oh yes, the small matter of rapidly melting ice caps!
[On the subject of the England Floods of early 2014, there could be no more absurd apocalyptic farce as the sight of scores on scores of petrol-guzzling, carbon-spewing four-by-fours being hurriedly guided onto lorry trailers throughout a waterlogged South of England. But the political Right will blame anything and anyone other than the blatant evidence of the environmental catastrophe caused largely by the emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere from the ubiquitous automobile (Heathcote Williams’ Autogeddon having been a highly prescient titular neologism): so while the prime minister –posing in his Wellington-booted PR offensive– blamed Labour (perhaps indicating the Tories’ next electoral slogan: Blame the weather. Blame Labour), a UKIP member blamed the recent passing of the gay marriage bill in Parliament. Anything to pointing the finger at the world’s inalienably greedy and acquisitive ‘petrol-heads’ for incurring the wrath of the biosphere.
Add to such wilfully blind dialectics the continual societal emphasis on the human damage caused by tobacco smoking with a new –reasonable in itself– parliamentary call for a ban in cars with children inside (following the arguably more punitive and uncompromising ban in all pubs, all public spaces, and even on open-air station platforms –we’re rapidly heading for the kind of scenario when only the richest person on the planet is able to procure a single tailor-made cigarette which she has to keep illicitly enshrined inside a gold keepsake under lock and key in a dressing-table drawer, pace, the late chain-smoking Denis Potter’s prophetic, posthumously broadcast Cold Lazarus), as if the world’s health and pollution problems can be solved not by radically limiting car use or introducing mandatory recyclable fuel or electric-powered vehicles, but simply by making car-driving smokers stub out their habit while driving –which is rather like asking someone in a burning building not to strike a match.
While there is a reasonably strong case for the effects of passive smoking, there is a much stronger case that the biggest cause of respiratory illness among humans is actually petrol pollution –oh, and add to that the fact that, unlike tobacco smoking, petrol pollution is also seriously altering our climate, puncturing the ozone layer and poisoning the planet’s very atmosphere, which seriously threatens the very survival of the human species. And yet, apparently the cure to all our ills isn’t a radical crackdown on industrial pollution and excessive car use, but just further moves towards an all-out ban on tobacco use. Perhaps one day, if, for instance –and to indulge my own wish-fulfilment for a moment– we had a part (i.e. a Green-Labour Coalition) or entire Green Party government, we may start to become accustomed to such terms as ‘petrol abuse’, whereby car usage is restricted to only essential journeys, and no individual or family can own more than one vehicle each. But of course, in our acquisitive, individualistic culture, this is highly unlikely to ever come about, even if we’re eventually in a situation where all cars have to be fitted with inflatable floats, like hovercrafts, in order to negotiate a permanently submerged landscape].
Now we come to the crie de Coeur of the volume in the anti-prayer that is the title poem, a kind of Porter-repelling spell dripping in the refulgent language of Roman Catholic rapture:
Our Lady (of tesco
and of the tescolonies
and of the tescolonisation
of the Matters of
Britain and Europe
and its botched grab
and of the Great Mind,
Dame de la Sainte Terre
mystical files mystical dossiers
built up about you
are legion are legendary
and thus I quote (from one:
Milady may the covings of the heavenly malls
descend to the glorifying
of thy name and of thy
necklaced lipsticked shoulderpadded
(and the smileyface emblazoned on thy pendant
of—in your case—Sol the bad loser)
to be an icon of conservatism
for the generations hereafter,
the new Devil’s Dam
‘Porterloo’ is, demonstrably, another concrete piece, broadly in the ee cummings mould, but the poem goes far beyond mere satire: it is, at heart, a deeply impassioned plea for the zombies of consumerism to wake up to the ‘tescolonisation’ not just of our high streets but of our cultural consciousness, which is, at present, little more than a hypnopompic stupor of superfluous appetites and spoon-fed opinions. And it is here that, for me, the quite primal but at the same time spiritualistic recalcitrance of McDevitt’s oeuvre really packs its punch, particularly because it doesn’t enslave itself to any doctrinal rigidity, is implicitly and explicitly ‘anarchic’, and is more dialectically immaterialist than anything else, though absolutely ‘anti-capitalist’. But it’s more instructive here to quote directly from McDevitt, who recently described in a brief email to me his personal philosophy/‘politics’:
I regard myself as a declasse bohemian. (My actual origin is petit-bourgeois Dublin). Shocked by emigrating from a one nation Ireland to a two nation England –seeing a people split in half– I have chosen to be a member of the underclass, but with anarchic results. My individualist anarchism is giving way to a more classical Kropotkinian/Bakuninan anarchism, but with 21st century spirituality and with the works of David Graeber to define what is at stake now.
This is a compendious expression of an individual belief system. Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was a Russian polymath and anarcho-communist, whose polemical works, such as The Conquest of Bread (1892) and Fields, Factories and Workshops: or Industry Combined with Agriculture and Brain Work with Manual Work (1898), argued as to capitalism essentially being a systemised form of poverty-parasitism, and the imperative of local communities to become self-sufficient in production of food and goods (recalling the 17th century English Digger movement, or, today, the Occupy movement) respectively.
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was the founder of collectivist anarchism, which proposed the abolition of both state and private ownership of means of production (i.e. a kind of libertarian Marxism), and prominent member of the First International (a transational attempt to organise all socialist and trade union groups throughout Europe and the world towards the pursuit of working-class emancipation). David Graeber (b. 1961), a contemporary anarchist thinker, Professor of Anthropology at Yale and prolific author (Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology; Revolutions in Reverse; The Democracy Project etc.), seems to be the modern day exponent of Kropotkinian and Bakuninian thought, and in just two quotes excerpted on his Wikipedia page, demonstrates a devastating insight and prodigious grasp of today’s capitalist paralysis of values and applications:
The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, “Well, they have to pay their debts.
Such arguments also recall those of William Morris (and the Arts and Crafts Movement) and Bertrand Russell (Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism, 1918; In Praise of Idleness, 1935 et al). through the prism of Kropotkin-Bakunin-Graeber one can begin to better comprehend McDevitt’s own convictions and perspectives. A certain will to self-empowerment and self-determination in such philosophies also brush against the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre; while certain associated McDevittian leitmotivs might also evoke fictive character-types, such as Sartre’s own Antoine Roquentin in Nausea (1938), or Dostoevsky’s Rodion Raskolinkov from Crime and Punishment (1866), though only, of course, insofar as he is depicted before the point he begins to put in his place his eventually enacted plan to rid the local community of a parasitic pawnbroker.
There are also shades of Gordon Comstock from George Orwell’s literary black comedy Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) to McDevitt: his recalcitrance in the face of intransigent authority, and his insistence on doggedly living what for him is an authentic life, irrespective of material siege; but this is not so much a conscious choice as a way of being, and a way of being true to himself and his nature; a sensibility. It can only be framed as some ‘choice’ in the sense that any unmoneyed individual’s refusal, or inability, to conform to rigid dictates as to what constitutes ‘occupation’ in capitalist society inescapably results in the rationing of benefits and, thereby, a passively-aggressive state-imposed poverty in the absence of any alternatives perceived as viable (often the only recourse for the nonconformist is ‘self’-employment, to which McDevitt himself has lately taken refuge).
McDevitt says he has ‘chosen to be a member of the underclass’, which I take to be a more metaphorical than literal assertion; but ostensibly it might seem that, as with Orwell’s Comstock, who chooses to chuck in his reasonably lucrative career as an advertising copywriter to make a personified stand against capitalist society by refusing to ‘play the money game’, McDevitt’s is an elective poverty; almost anchoritic. However, unlike Comstock –who was, in any case, a fictional character, albeit autobiographically cobbled together from Orwell’s own hobo days, and who had a financially fruitful career as an advertising copywriter to fall back on once the novelty of poverty wore off– I think McDevitt is doing more than just making a stand or statement against the tyranny of materialism: he is personally demonstrating that the individual human will, or personality, if strong or inspired or determined enough, can not only triumph over diminished circumstances through the power of self-expression, but actually amplify itself in spite of societal fetters, and in a way which capitalism, for all its inanimate mesmerisms, cannot do.
Given, Comstock himself attempts this, turns his ‘copy’ back into poetry –or his ‘sponsored poetry’ back into ‘unsponsored poetry’ (Hayakawa)– in an attempt to amplify the potentials of his critically praised debut pamphlet, MICE, towards a more substantial poetic career; although it is hugely significant, and perhaps part of Orwell’s polemical point to the novel, that once Comstock extracts himself from his daily office-bound routine of producing ‘synthetic poetry’ to sell products, and hurls himself into an archetypal poet-in-the-garret lifestyle, punctuated by the odd shift at a dowdy second-hand bookshop (whose proprietor, Mr Cheeseman, is, with Dickensian irony, an unapologetic philistine and bibliophobe), he finds himself not so much creatively frustrated as near-crippled by poet’s block, unable, throughout the course of the book, to get beyond his opening line, a perpetually redrafted description of poplars. (Much of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying adumbrated many aspects to the similarly picaresque novel Scamp (1951) by Roland Camberton (reviewed elsewhere on this site), about a down-at-heel writer, Ivan Ginsberg –almost a composite of Aspidistra’s Comstock and Ravelston, as well as George Gissing’s impoverished writer-idealist Edwin Reardon and his nemesis, opportunistic hack Jasper Milvain, from George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891)– trying but failing to set up the eponymous phantom literary journal; the book also includes a Cheeseman-like character, Kagaranias, who owns a vast storehouse of second-hand books bought ‘by the barrowload’ but perpetually unthumbed: ‘He did not read them, but liked handling them’).
But there is a sense in Comstock of temperamental posturing, of trying to make a point (implying that, once the point is taken, then he can return to his old conformity, feeling somehow replenished), as opposed to attempting a full metamorphosis into a whole new authentic mode of being, into a sensibility. Perhaps these Comstock comparisons are not so apposite, and, in light of one of McDevitt's signature poems from b/w, 'George Orwell is Following Me' (which he often performs at readings to the accompaniment of a perambulatory drum), also, rather ironic: said verse satirises Orwell's own elective undercover poverty while he empirically researched, incognito, much of his material for Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and later, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). But I'm sure McDevitt will appreciate the irony; indeed, Orwell does seem to shadow him in many respects, even if titularly: McDevitt only recently mentioned to me in an email that a new housing development in West London's Wormington Green (presently renamed Portobello Square) is to be called Orwell Mansions. And, with an additional Blakean twist, one of the promotional slogans used on the website of the company facilitating this re-development is Green and Pleasant.
The architecture -if you like- of McDevitt's verse varies aesthetically, taking in everything from concrete to baroque; but appearances can often be deceptive with his verse, since any surface brutalism is often offset by passionate and emotive content which ruptures through its own structure, and is what, to my mind, sets McDevitt apart from similar stylists who, conversely, oversubscribe to a more proverbial 'avant-garde' undervaluing of emotion. With this visceral emotivism we hit the vein of a form of Vitalism –what we might term ‘McDevittian Vitalism’ (though I am sure McDevitt himself is temperamentally resistant to any attempts to tag his verse with an ‘–ism’ or any other kind of deterministic reduction). This ‘McVitalism’ has some of the surface characteristics of early-twentieth century Vorticism, most famously expressed in the dynamic 1914 verse-manifesto BLAST (of which the iconic jacket design, in its explosive starkness, with the title writ diagonally in big thick letters across a plain tomato-coloured cover, was such an essential part) edited by the movement’s doyen, Wyndham-Lewis. But McDevitt’s verse is really a kind of anti-Vorticism, a verse-reaction against materialist dogma; and one which, pivotally, arms itself in the type of nomenclatures reflective of such auspices which it holds in contempt, by means of rebutting these brutalisms with their own blunt –and sharp– semantic instruments.