Alan Morrison on
1948 – A Novel In Verse
Illustrated by Martin Rowson
(Five Leaves Publications, 2012; 90pp)
Year of the Red Olympics
The line between defeat and winning
Is that between bald lies and spinning
Andy Croft is a veteran versifier whose vital and prolific oeuvre has ever gone energetically against the grain of mainstream poetic acedia. In many ways he is the natural successor to both Adrian Mitchell and Tony Harrison in his socio-political concerns, but Croft is a poet distinctive in his own right for his infectious and defiant infusion of humour into the fundamentally serious and compelling themes he tackles. This is one of his inveterate strengths as a poet and writer, since humour - in this particular case, a philanthropic and all-inclusive one - is one of the most powerful tools towards ingratiating and warming-in less ‘converted’ readerships to an ideological viewpoint – in Croft’s case, a form of radical socialism, or ‘romantic communism’ – they might otherwise feel more encouraged by a wider ‘junk culture’ of red-top misanthropy, Tory rhetoric and capitalist spin, to scoff at as hopelessly utopian, impracticable, and anti-‘enterprise’ and individualism (though socialism is in actual fact a drive towards an equity of ‘individuality’ for every person, social and psychical self-actualisation, as opposed to the inauthentic and often, ironically, homogenous ‘identities’ permitted by the narrow, materialistic paradigm of utilitarian capitalism). As a side note, though an equally prolific one, Croft is also the sedulous founder of radical Middlesbrough-based imprint Smokestack Books, which has been at the vanguard of a new socialist poetry renaissance in the UK over the past decade; Smokestack’s distinctive grey-framed and red or black-spined books are rapidly becoming the iconic livery for British poetic dissent; an increasingly influential, proletarian riposte to the typographical, tricolour wraparounds of Faber.
My main focus in reviewing Croft’s latest volume, 1948, his second novel in verse in Pushkin sonnets following 2007’s Ghost Writer, is on efficacy of technique more so than narrative analysis. Nevertheless, this being very much a verse narrative, it is of course highly relevant to explore initially the ingeniously subversive storyline, at least, as best I am able, not being a natural follower of narrative but more a lateral appreciator and absorber of texture and effect, as well as rhythm and music, through the treatment of language. The plot of 1948 is quite convoluted, but in this, the discipline of conveying it through 150 verses/individual Pushkin sonnets, using a strict and expertly crafted 1/2/1/2/3/3/4/4/5/6/6/5/7/7 rhyme scheme, aids accessibility, together with Croft’s inimitably succinct but descriptively rich employment of language and image. This is no mean feat to accomplish, but to skilled formalists such as Croft, it feels instinctual, even compulsive, as evidenced further in the equally skilled Pushkin-crafted Dedication and Acknowledgements. Croft is prosodic to the core. But to pull myself away, already, from focusing on technique – briefly, to the narrative, which I don’t pretend to have comprehensively grasped after first reading, but it’s essentially as follows.
1948 is set in its eponymous year, but something of an alternative reality where the UK is governed by a Labour-Communist government – so in this sense of a ruling coalition, and being an Olympic year in the UK, the scenario is a kind of upside-down parallel to the UK in 2012. The title is of course an inversion of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was of course its own titular inversion when it was penned in 1948 (though actually published in 1949) – and here we enter into a kind of meta-textual junction point of narrative, historical overlaps and synchronicities reminiscent of the equally byzantian psychical ‘triangulation’ between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, and the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, in which the demonic anti-hero Kurtz, based on the same-named character in Heart of Darkness (on which the screenplay is narratively based), in one scene quotes a passage from Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, which in itself is inspired by Conrad’s novel, beginning as it does with the epigraph “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” (and both Conrad and Eliot’s works themselves influenced by Übermensch (‘Overman’) concept of Friedrich Nietzsche, which also adumbrates the film and its symbolisms). But somewhat less apocalyptically, and more politically than philosophically, 1948 draws us into an altogether wittier polemical hemisphere orbited by the ‘shabby genteel’ ghosts of Eric Blair/George Orwell, his more comically treated fictional protagonist Winston Smith (portrayed more like Orwell’s hapless alter-ego, the anticapitalist poet and dropout Gordon Comstock of his Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)), whom Croft transfigures, paradoxically, into a somewhat dishevelled, chain-smoking detective, who is implicitly a personification of Orwell himself (as literally illustrated by Mark Rowson’s brilliantly drawn Owell caricature which crops up throughout), whose boss in a rather noirish espionage plot is named O’Brien (after Nineteen Eighty-Four’s pivotal double-agent who ultimately entraps Winston and re-indoctrinates him into an almost cabbage-like state).
All the characters in 1948 are named after characters from 1984 (excuse the numerals, but the original Secker and Warburg cover for Orwell’s novel actually had the title written over an adumbration of its numerical representation, thus making the now iconic title typographically interchangeable, as is 1948 itself variably written from advert to review, even in Five Leaves own website catalogue): Syme, Charrington, Ampleforth, all names from 1984, are characters whom, one detects (though in my case might need to read a second time to decode), represent cultural movers and shakers of the time. The posthumous Ampleforth, for instance, sounds faintly Audenesque in terms of his surviving poet associates’ descriptions of his work-in-progress, ‘Forward to a Soviet Britain’; he has been assassinated, news which his envious poet-competitors greet with feigned grief and barely restrained relish, and although the suggestion here is of a late state poet, or laureate (a post which John Masefield occupied in 1948) one suspects in this parallel Labour-Comm Britain the more likely laureate would be W.H. Auden. This attempt at character decoding, however, is immediately thrown off course with the allusion to ‘“…Wystan”’ having ‘“moved to Leningrad”’ (in the aftermath of the presumably ‘democratic revolution’, and a new Far Left government, the royal family has quietly relocated to colonial Rhodesia).
Possibly the most pivotal moment, in the meta-textual, paradoxical sense, of the narrative of 1948, is when Winston thumbs through a discarded book by one ''Eric Blair'', titled 1984, which depicts what he perceives to be an unimaginative and highly unlikely dystopian projection into a future capitalist Britain atomised by social inequality and class divisions (i.e. our own reality’s historical UK of 1984, and of 2012, our second Olympiad since 1948). Convoluted as all that sounds, it is only the surface scenario in which Croft’s actual espionage plot unfolds, but one which I’ve not the thriller readers’ aptitude to recount with any logic. However, I believe the main purpose of Croft’s 1948 is that of satirical commentary on how far our society has regressed ethically and politically since the comparatively enlightened, optimistic and humanistically ambitious days of the late Forties and the post-war Attlee Settlement – the leitmotivs of dates and events (such as the Olympics), of crossing over fictions and histories, narratives, characters, names, symbols, political and cultural allusions, and parallel subversions are, to my mind, the main purpose of this verse novel, a delightful and intricately detailed literary conceit crafted and structure in order to demonstrate how the true parody and satire of British society is in its actual real history and present-day incarnation.
In short, that the real-life British political and social narrative thread veered off into self-parody and tragic farce, into its own satirical, or rather, satire-proof narrative, decades ago; but most particularly since the counter-dialectical, spiritless and inspissated materialist nihilism of Thatcherism, at which point any progressive British narrative was truncated and replaced with an historically uprooted culture of immediacy, without true identity or values, divided into disunited individualisms based solely on financial gain via the fractious ‘faith-system’ of profit. The atomisation of community and collective values at the altar of anarcho-capitalism: eater of histories and cultures. Croft’s incredulous verse intervention shows us that our national teleology has simply looped back on itself over the decades, as demonstrated in how such tautological satire as 1948 itself has been handed its semiotic mandate today. Confused? Well I certainly am; which is why I now turn to the craft and technique of the poetry itself.
Each Chapter of the book is headed by two quotes each, most drawn from the evocative nursery rhyme 'The Bells of St Clemens', and most others, from George Orwell himself, or from Ealing films such as Passport to Pimlico. All this rather cosily evokes the London setting of the period. Croft’s tone is witty, even side-splitting, throughout, and he frequently milks the task he has set himself in itself with his frequent ‘breaking through the fourth wall’ asides to the reader, through sometimes hilarious punctuations of parenthesis, which kick in right at the start, in circuitous Comstockian style (re said fictional character’s perpetual attempts to perfect the description of poplar trees at the eternally arrested beginning of his phantom long poem in Keep the Aspidistra Flying):
It was a bright cold day in April.
Oh no it wasn’t – for a start
I cannot find a rhyme for April…
It was a bright – but does it matter?
How relevant’s the time of year?
The clock was striking – dear, oh dear –
Though you may like descriptive chatter,
I’d rather cut out these delays
And start at once in media res.
It was a bright – oh sod the weather
Who cares what kind of day it was?
It is worth remarking after this first excerpt that Croft sustains this disciplined attention to scansion, metre and rhyme throughout all 150-odd Pushkin stanzas, which makes in itself for a significant accomplishment (Croft is as consummate a verse craftsman as any poet writing today). Croft’s tone and style can seamlessly switch from snappy witticism to brooding evocation:
The wharf rat slips behind a derrick
And disappears into the night.
(To make it seem more atmospheric
This scene is filmed in black and white).
The moon that shines tonight in Wapping
Looks like it badly needs a drink.
The clouds move in. The shadows sink.
Again, there’s no doubt as to Croft’s mastery of metre and rhyme, at which he is a rare natural; so many of his stanzas have the clipped aphorismic quality of earlier twentieth-century poets such as Harold Monro (himself in many ways the George Orwell of verse – see his polemical ‘Aspidistra Street’, which surely had some influence on Orwell’s own assault on the pot-plant emblem of suburbia), and early T.S. Eliot (whose ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was stylistically inspired by the ‘gentrified dissent’ of much of Monro’s oeuvre). Croft’s capacity at highly literate comical verse is in evidence throughout:
Here every mood’s subdued, crepuscular;
Like Hammett, Cain and Hemmingway
The only ink I’ve used is grey;
The verbs are manly, strong and muscular,
The adjectives are hard and taut.
Some sentences. Are very. Short.
There’s a fecundity of literary, cultural and political allusions throughout 1948, which provides a constant stream of cerebral and ideological sustenance to any readers literarily nostalgic for the days of avuncular socialist intellectuals pinioned with wasp-wing spectacles in studies lined with well-thumbed editions from the Left Book Club. (There was an England like that once). But though Croft is a poet steeped in the English radical left tradition (in his case, mainly that of Thirties Communist poets such as Tom Wintringham, Christopher Caudwell, Edgell Rickword, Randall Swingler – the latter on whom Croft wrote a biography, Comrade Heart: A Life of Randall Swingler (2003)), his own particular ideological recipe is essentially an internationalist one, particularly influenced by Russian literature, poetry and culture, both Soviet (Maxim Gorky et al) and pre-Soviet (Pushkin, Gogol et al). Croft is only ever self-referential when he feels the need to satiate his own appetite for self-deprecation:
Though some prefer to dream in colour
And hold up Nature to the light,
There’s those of us who, dimmer, duller,
Still see the world in black and white,
Old-fashioned as a Pushkin stanza,
Quixotic as a Sancho Panza –
But here the reader intercedes
Observing that this novel needs
More narrative and less narrator
Croft is several sizeable shifts to the left of the very English ‘left-winger’ Orwell himself, who oscillated during his lifetime between radical socialist, anti-communist and, later, ‘Tory anarchist’. Orwell was also notoriously commissioned to compile a list of writers he suspected of being Communists, and thus unsuitable to work for the Labour Government’s Information Research Department, which focused on anti-communist propaganda (this was in 1949, the ‘hottest’ period of the Cold War), and which, ironically, he parodied as the Stalinistic construct of the Ministry of Truth in 1984 (though presumably the latter was also based on the distinctly Orwellian-sounding Mass Observation, a social research organisation in operation between 1937 and the mid-Sixties; a now invaluable source of social document, as most recently plumbed by David Kynaston for his Tales of a New Jerusalem social histories which started with the bible-thick Austerity Britain 1945-51, in 2008). This writer has often sensed a seam of circumspection, scepticism, even slight hostility from Croft’s point of view towards Orwell and his politico-literary legacy, which is not meant in any way as a criticism, and would have no doubt been respected as a necessary vigilance by Orwell himself against his own knowingly impetuous pen. Besides which, Croft is himself a communist, and it is an inescapable irony that Orwell probably contributed more than most other writers towards the deconstruction of State Communist ideology in literature (notably Animal Farm, and, arguably, 1984). Orwell was, above all, an individualistic socialist, and as distrustful of ‘the State’ as any Tory or capitalist; but one could reasonably argue he wasn’t truly anti-communist, only anti-Stalinist, which in the main, all humanistic communists are, not to say, democratic socialists.
But this curious posthumous sparring between Croft and the ghost of Orwell whose shadow frequently stalks him, is a bittersweet, ‘love and hate’ affair, nuanced, tonal, and, ultimately, affectionate. In previous works, Croft has made some polemical sport of the coincidence in Orwell’s real surname, and that of the latter day, Clause Four-flouncing, ultimate ‘reformer’ of the Labour Movement; it’s conceivable, had Orwell lived longer, that he would leant much more towards the Tony Crosland school of Labourism than the left-wing socialist end of the party spectrum (a la, Nye Bevan, Michael Foot et al), but it’s open to speculation as to whether the further right-ward shift of ‘New’ Labour would have fooled him as easily. He might have sympathised in some ways with the modern ‘Blue’ Labour viewpoint, and toyed too with John Cruddas’s peculiar composite, ‘conservative socialism’, with its emphasis on working-class traditionalism and ‘Englishness’. But to return, thankfully, to Croft: his is a far less patriotically preoccupied, but more fulsomely crimson political colour. The tonality of Croft’s urban descriptions are often striking, and unpretentiously metaphorical; but, are occasionally punctuated with bracketed digressions in which the poet sends up his own technique and the Pushkin discipline he’s imposed on himself, a sort of intermittently ‘fourth-wall-breaking’ broken commentary, which is highly amusing, but at times, arguably a self-deprecation too far:
The bombed-out waste ground on the corner
Is filigreed with silver light,
A pastoral scene of bricks and fauna,
(Oh god, this could go on all night)
The missing houses frame a skyline
(This sort of stuff is not in my line)
Of broke streets beside the Thames
Like silent blocks of printer’s ems.
Oh, but ‘this sort of stuff’ very much is Croft’s ‘line’, demonstrably, as this very verse testifies. Poet, know thyself! The last couplet excerpted above strikes an exceptional trope of juxtaposition, all the more accomplished for its serendipitous rhymes; a highly original descriptive image of an urban scene, which suggests so much more on a figurative level than the arresting beauty of its surface evocation: it’s an image which transports one.
Croft contemporises the scenario of the book as often as he can, to keep its parallelism to today as prominent as possible – even if the actual political dynamics are so remote, even opposite, to our own time (which in some ways is half the point):
…the Lab-Comms win
With such a thumping great majority
That those who crowd Trafalgar Square
Smell Revolution in the air.
But then we thump down with an all-too-familiar thud of under-ambitious, complacent agendas, shadow-manifestoes of gradualist pragmatism:
In fact the programme’s less ambitious
Than those who’ve voted for it think;
The House of Lords may be suspicious
But London isn’t Red – it’s Pink.
Here Croft then plays on Churchill’s Red-dreading ‘Iron Curtain’ rhetoric of the time:
If Britain’s haunted by a spectre
It’s called the Fabian public-sector,
Investment in the nation’s health,
And taxes on excessive wealth.
The relatively ‘pinker’ spirit of democratic socialism? Croft’s attention to cultural detail is nothing short of uncanny, as seemingly throwaway couplets such as ‘(He’s read No Orchids for Miss Blandish/ And didn’t think it that outlandish’ demonstrate – again, with quite ingenious rhymes, though none are quite as comically ingenious, as the purely aural rhyme: ‘Till then her ideas of Romance/ Don’t reach her draught-excluding pants’.
Croft’s conceits know no bounds, when he switches from the inter-textually fictive to what he asserts is reality, which is itself part of the several-layered fiction:
It’s time that we turned our attention
From fiction to the world of fact.
The growing international tension,
The strains within the Lab-Comm Pact
His listed description of Winston, aka Orwell, has some surreally virtuosic rhymes, here chiming purely on the Northern short vowel pronunciation:
Mid-forties. Male. Six foot. Giraffish.
Size 13 shoes. A thin moustache.
A thinner smile. Hair greying, raffish.
A shabby jacket flecked with ash.
Croft is expert at descriptions of the perennially down-at-heel, politically engaged, struggling poet, as he deftly does in one stanza via the sartorial deduction of the sleuthing protagonist as he rifles through the clothes of a poet’s corpse:
Smith checks the pockets of the coat:
A photo of two kids. Poor blighter.
Name: Ampleforth. Some kind of writer,
Though not one blessed with Fortune’s smile –
Inside his wallet there’s a pile
Of what look like rejection letters
From literary magazines with names
Like Red Horizon, Anvil, Flames.
(Red Horizon is a left-leaning extrapolation of the real life literary magazine edited by Cyril Connolly, Horizon). This picaresque portrayal of the tight-knit, egoistically suffocating and impecuniously quixotic twilight world of the limited-circulation literary journal scene is hilariously evoked in the following stanza, reminiscent of the left-wing ‘poet in the garret’-magnet of Philip Ravelston’s journal Antichrist in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and of Ivan Ginsberg’s pilgrimage through rented rooms and dingy night cafes to ‘pyramid-scam’ his way to collecting sufficient donations to producing the ever-elusive first issue of his own little magazine, Scamp, in Roland Camberton’s title of the same name (recently republished with its original cover design also by Five Leaves):
I think it’s time we paid a visit
To Red Horizon magazine,
A small example – though exquisite –
Of London’s red-hot literary scene;
Whose claims to cultural leadership
Are greater than its readership.
The caustic last couplet will tickle any veteran of the frequently self-hyperbolic British poetry journal scene. Croft takes in the then-less fashionable right-wing end of the late Forties literary scene in a sweeping piece of exposition:
While old Fitzrovia’s slowly burning
With revolution, on the street
The melting city’s quickly turning
To butter in the Summer heat.
The rats are coming out in London.
As Eliot, Campbell, Pound and Blunden
Denounce the plagues of Red and Yid
In weekly broadcasts from Madrid
In this alternative 1948, the fascist-sympathising poets have long relocated to the Spain of Franco, also, seemingly, as victorious here as in our own historical past. For this writer, it’s in the petulantly neurotic and hyper-competitive scenario of the Red Horizon circle that 1948 most entertains and impresses in its wit and descriptions:
We’re just in time to catch a meeting
At Red Horizon magazine,
Where temperatures are overheating
On temper, tea and nicotine –
An always fatal combination
In any earnest conversation
About the social role of art
Involving fans of Jean-Paul Sartre
And devotees of all things Russian.
The scene grows funnier still:
Oh bloody hell. Another nutter.
‘Don’t worry sir – it’s just routine.
May I?’ ‘Of course. Don’t mind the clutter.
We’re editing the magazine’.
Beneath a poster of Guernica
A rubicund and owl-like speaker
As if on cue, is holding forth
About the work of Ampleforth –
‘Such bourgeois intellectual squalor,
The vilest verse I’ve ever read,
So out of date, his style is dead – ’
And, on hearing of Ampleforth’s assassination:
The fat man pales. ‘My god – how awful!’
He seems half-terrified, half-thrilled
To be so close to things unlawful;
‘But why? I mean, he can’t be – killed?’
He stares into the middle distance,
‘How fleeting is a man’s existence…’
The room falls silent. It appears
The fat man’s very close to tears.
‘He fagged for me, you know, at Eton
Here Croft expertly plays on the titillating 'brushes with reality' as felt by those such as the average semi-reclusive poet who lives very much vicariously through the filtering of his/her vocational medium. This is first-rate literary comedy, worthy of Roland Camberton, but distinctly Croftian in its almost symbiotic constriction within a sharply rhyming verse-form. But the hilarity continues through this chapter, culminating in ‘the fat man’, cryptically named 'Stephen' – and I say ‘cryptically’ since if it’s meant to represent Stephen Spender, known for his lean gangly frame (as also described under a thinly-disguising sobriquet in Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical memoir Lions and Shadows (1938)), plus the fact Spender is, like Auden, referenced elsewhere, it would mean that this either based on an entirely different poet or poet-editor of the time, or that physiologies and body masses are their opposites in this parallel England – recites one of his poems in memory of Ampleforth:
‘O youth! O Stars! O moving masses!
O splendid limbs! O naked spear!
O Lenin-loving Lycidases!
O sun! O moon! (‘Oh dear, oh dear!’
Thinks DC Smith) ‘O soaring eagle!’
(‘If this is art, then I’m a seagull’)
‘O mountain barricades of doubt!
O let us in! (‘O let me out!’)
The poet stops abruptly, blushing.
‘As you can see, it needs more work – ’
The room, however, goes berserk,
The fat man next to Smith is gushing,
‘C’est incroyable! Magnifique!’
Smith thinks it’s time to take a leak.
Contrasting with such heady humour, Croft soon moves again from witty narrative verse to cooler pools of aphorismic poetic description:
By day the city’s bright and cheery,
By night the street-lamps show her age;
Six years of war have left her weary,
An actress on a darkened stage
But Croft’s formalistic virtuosity is sometimes most strikingly caught in the more humorous stanzas, snagging itself on consciously, even deliberately tenuous rhymes, as a tool to comedy in itself, as in the verses in which the Russian femme fatale Tamar Zaleshoff’s thick accent and off-kilter syntax provides much sport for Croft’s mischievous ear:
Is called Tamara. To be formal:
Prokovna Zaleshov. Iz long,
Am knowings, for your English tongue.
You call me Toma please? Iz normal.’
‘I hef been sent to help, concerning
Your striking actions of the docks.
The information ve hef learning
Iz – how you say – a paradox?
Iz problem not. For us, of course iz
The clash of dialectic forces.
Croft’s bracketed asides of a smitten Winston trying to place the particular tint of Zaleshoff’s seductive eyes punctuate the following lines with rib-tickling irrelevance:
‘Tovarish, please pay more attention.
Ve hef important verk to do.’
(Her eyes are teal – or azure-blue)
‘No time to vaste,’ (or maybe gentian?).
Croft fleshes out the bones of the political backdrop to his alternative 1948, where the British press is still irrepressibly right-wing and red-top propaganda abounds, curiously pretending to encourage a further revolution of even deeper red in order to, presumably, tip the balance the other way:
The papers are now concentrating
On putting Britains off their food
By endlessly regurgitating
The dream of Stateside plenitude.
Apparently they want their readers
To put their faith in union leaders
Ironic that such Bolshie thoughts
Should bring the Tories satisfaction,
But rats prefer the deepest shades
On both sides of the barricades.
Now Britain’s governed by fanatics
And sandal-wearing bearded cranks
With busts of Lenin in their attics
And wades of roubles in the banks,
In West End clubs the lunchtime diet
Is peppered with a taste of riot.
(To hear the bourgeoisie admit
To be revolting, takes a bit
Of what they call a sense of humour).
The right-wing papers, day and night,
Help circulate each latest rumour
About a military coup
So here appears to be a hegemony of champagne socialists, well-heeled ‘trendy lefties’ and rogue tofu-chewing Greens. A bit later we catch Winston drowning his sorrows in another splice of comic brio:
He dives headfirst
Into another pint of bitter
As though it might contain a clue
That helps him find the bastard who
Was in the bastard car that hit her.
But first needs another drink
(He shometimeth findsh it helpth him shink).
Many of Croft’s couplets form self-contained aphorisms which have an almost classical quality reminiscent of the satirical Augustan poetry of Ambrose Philips, and Alexander Pope, famed for his perfection of the 'heroic couplet' (which incorporated iambic pentameter, one iamb/metrical foot longer than what in the main appears to be an employment of common metre by Croft): ‘What quicker way to sober up/ Than supping Truth’s aseptic cup?’ His descriptions of setting and place can appeal potently to numerous sense-impressions, as in the following lines, which lead up to Winston’s meta-textual encounter with a certain implausible book of a future British capitalist dystopia:
He lights the stove to make a cuppa.
Outside a washer-woman sings,
‘They sye that time will ‘eal all fings…’
Looks like it’s tea and cigs for supper.
The caddy’s empty. Just his luck.
Hello, what’s this? A large black book.
He peers behind the muslin curtain.
A swirl of gritty dust. …
The air is thick with the aroma
Of cabbages and sooty streets.
Outside the same old song repeats.
Smith wonders what the woman’s age is.
Then sits down in the sluttish chair
Picks up the book (‘by Eric Blair’)
And then to an author’s vision of an horrific future society of unbridgeable wealth and power divides (the readers' own present reality):
It opens with a gruesome picture
Of Britain, 1984,
A future where the rich get richer
By stealing from the nation’s poor.
Then follows what Winston perceives as tantamount to a B-movie level projection, with appropriate cast, including, inevitably, Ronald Reagan. The all-too-familiar setting is further extrapolated:
The first part of the book is focussed
(Smith thinks he’d better concentrate)
On telling how this plague of locusts
Dismantled Britain’s Welfare State,
A vision of a national polity
Designed to widen inequality,
Where violent sociopaths insist
Society does not exist,
Declaring war against the miners
And anyone who thinks it does
Because they are not ‘one of us’.
As in that foul commode of Heine’s,
This future has the putrid stench
Of every would-be übermensch.
This exposition draws some powerful tropes from Croft as he embeds our future and present-day as a future fiction within a fiction, which makes our reading of it all the more chilling:
Of public wealth in private pockets,
Of camps of homeless refugees,
Of toxic skies and poisoned seas,
And sanctimonious politicians
Whose simpering falsehoods dulcify
The wars where others’ sons must die
Here Croft maximises the scope for reinforced Orwellian leitmotivs:
The nightmare’s followed by another,
Of prolefeed duckspeak magazines
Where everybody loves Big Brother,
Of twenty-four hour telescreens
And tortured camps, and endless war,
And nothing lasts but the impression
Exchanged in every market-place
Of boot-prints on a human face.
Croft ingeniously plays with meta-textual paradoxes throughout, lending the narrative a dizzyingly omniscient playfulness, almost like an Ealing Comedy for the LSD generation. In the following excerpt, Croft fore-paraphrases from Philip Larkin’s future poem, ‘Annus Mirabilis’:
She wants a chap who’s lantern-jawed,
But also fluffy as a puppy;
She can’t take Smith into her bed
Not least because, as someone said,
She won’t discover making whoopee
Until the Beatles’ first LP
Comes out in 1963.
Towards the end of the story, in its final Chapter 7, we get some more meta-textual references that give a macrocosmic flavour to the narrative:
Of course all writers tell some porkies.
For though the Truth may be our goal
(This maxim’s from a book of Gorky’s)
It cannot heal a wounded soul.
And the concluding stanza:
And so proschai and do svidaniya.
Twelve lines to go, and not too soon.
We won’t play out with Rule Britannia –
Jerusalem’s a better tune,
And if the lyrics lack precision
They’re more in keeping with the vision
Of those who laboured to create
The post-War British Welfare State,
Who thought the future would be ratless,
Who knew the songs that we must play
If we’re to pipe the rats away
And stop them spreading round the atlas,
From shore to shore and sea to sea
Beneath the spreading chestnut tree…
It’s difficult to think of a more textually appropriate and resonant final aphorism on which to end this Orwellian novel-in-verse, drawn as it is from the dark adaptation of a song lyric (from ‘Go no more a-rushing’, a popular English campfire song from the 1920s) which haunts Winston’s mind after he has been finally and thoroughly indoctrinated by O’Brien at the end of 1984 (most gruesomely involving his ultimate betrayal of the woman he loves, to torture, in order to be spared from having rats nibble at his face in a cage attached to his head): ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me’.
Following on from Ghost Writer (Five Leaves, 2007), and the excellent collection of shorter poems, Sticky (Flambard, 2009), 1948 once again reinforces Croft’s reputation as one of the most accomplished craftsmen of today’s British poetry left, and, in that, a true and authentic ‘national treasure’ of a distinctly crimson hue, who is able to seemingly effortlessly combine deep ideological conviction with a warm, humorous and touching accessibility of tone and language. Alan Bold wrote in his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Socialist Poetry (1970) that ‘It is necessary for the socialist poet to have more impressive technical equipment than his apolitical contemporaries because his task is that much more important’, and there’s no doubt Croft is a socialist poet who certainly has the prosodic ‘technical equipment’ to hammer out his polemical lines in the smithy of hard-tested political poetry.
It only remains to note that the masterfully expressive caricatures of cartoonist Martin Rowson, which illustrate the frontispieces for each chapter in the book and adorn what has to be one of the most striking poetry covers in a long time (a deathly grey ravaged-faced Orwell gripping a spindly cigarette against a murky crimson background with names and title in hammer-and-sickle yellow), are a perfect compliment to the picaresque quirkiness and biting satire of Croft’s effervescent verse. If you want to read a poem which is at once highly entertaining, unobtrusively didactic, satirical, and expertly crafted, then treat yourself to 1948, which The Recusant recommends as a must-read companion and antidote to this year of our dystopian Cultural Olympiad. Winston is waiting – and Big Laughter too.
Alan Morrison © 2012