New Boots and Pantisocracies: Smokestack Books
There are one hundred contributors to this anthology, edited and published post-Brexit, and reflecting the reaction of a cross-section of the nation’s poets to the first 138 days of the new Conservative government. It takes its title from a conflation of Ian Dury’s seminal 1977 album and the free-thinking and idealistic notion of a New World utopia (Pantocracy) created by Coleridge and Southey in 1794. WN Herbert, in his introduction to this ambitious invitation to publish a poem a day from hand-picked invitees, and then the general poetic public, states that “what we were after was a totality that might equate to … that lost ideal (crossed with just the slightest hint of smut), a pantisocracy”.
I am brought in mind of two similar exercises, Michael Horovitz’s Children of Albion (Penguin, 1969) and This poem is sponsored by… ( Corporate Watch UK 2006), in which small armies of the nation’s more radical (ie left-leaning and/or libertarian) poets were assembled to assault the bastions of the capitalist establishment. New Boots is organised around four sections named after the four ministries of Airship One in George Orwell’s 1984, but provides a rather imbalanced and almost pointless differentiation of themes. The Ministry of Love with 38 contributions outstrips the Ministry of Peace with a mere 15.
In a not quite arbitrary selection process I was particularly taken with a number of offerings. Dealing with the sour taste of post-election night hangovers, Roddy Lumsden (‘At the Standard’) and Tim Wells (‘New Boots and Panties’) adopt significantly different voice and tone in responding literally to their brief. By contrast Sean O’Brien approaches from the periphery in describing events at “a mock-Tudor Midland roadhouse” in “Albion’s excluded middle”. It’s a place that has seen better days, “which must long for arson”, now “dogged by doggers”. It is the venue for an unnamed far right convention of those “counting the days until their inheritance is saved, / From everyone, including you”. (‘The Chase’).
Tanya Shirley (‘All of Us Nervous’) reminds us that events in the UK impact on many others like the Caribbean relatives of cousin Bev whose “whole life is a cut-back / so we back home can sport / in a we khaki suit and ting.” Something about the word ‘conservative’ is making Bev so nervous that “soon love may be the only ting / she sending.” By further contrast a piece like Jan Dean’s’ Cleaning up’ goes straight for the jugular:
benches with no backs
and pigeon spikes for people
we’ll have no roosting here
no rough sleep roosting here
There is a difference here between the sense of liberal outrage at capitalism’s finest hour and the despair on behalf of those who have been marginalised by all political hues. ‘Yarl’s Wood Moon’ by Claire Askew takes us inside the infamous detention centre where those who sought refuge are held and reduced to case numbers.
A strange ambiguity pervades ‘Go Not, Gentle’ by Josephine Dickinson which speaks of love and compassion rather than bitterness. Slightly ironic perhaps that the orphaned lamb she adopts is saved from the abbatoir while its peers and relatives are condemned to make the one-way journey.
Many well-known names are featured in this collection and a slow and repeated re-reading bears fruit in some fine and often subtle poems, whose prescience is still being borne out by events, and with others that transcend the ephemerality of party politics and parochial perspective. Being shoehorned into this extensive anthology doesn’t make for easy reading. Reading aloud certainly helps uncover their strengths and nuances; Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘Chinese Whispers’ reveals a host of hidden rhymes not first apparent when skimming through; lifts, rifts, commit, split, flit, shit, spit, unfit, pit, whitless.
Most of these poems will have another life; their authors are well-published. There is a welter of fine poems bemoaning modern life, and diagnosing the disease, none better than Bob Beagrie’s “a moth-eaten dust sheet concealing the framework of feudalism” (‘Albion Uncovered’). But Rachel McCrum is one of the few contributors who calls the Pantisocracy to action in ‘Ling Chi’, the death by a thousand cuts, where victims are tortured “slice by slice by/ sting by sting by / flesh by flesh by”, by asking:
Who will dare to pull the emperor from his horse?
What voice from the crowd will first shout
stop, for the love of all that is good, stop?