Jess Green and her affirmation of nightlife on London's evening of terror
It was when the train was leaving Waterloo that news of the London Bridge terror attacks started appearing on people’s mobiles. I had to leave early to catch the last train home after attending Tubthumping, an evening of political poetry at the Stoke Newington literary festival in north London.
Whatever conclusions some may draw, these terrible, crazed happenings make politics irrelevant, for the moment – and that is why the parties more or less suspended election campaigning, briefly, in the aftermath. And that’s also why the most important poem performed on the night at the Mascara Bar in Stoke Newington in retrospect became Jess Green’s ‘Friday Night’, which she wrote within two days of the Paris attacks of November 2015.
It includes these lines: “Because Friday nights are made for laughter … nobody told the kids at that gig they were going to war … Friday nights are sacred … “ Introducing it, she said: “I thought it would have a short shelf life, but then, with the Manchester attack …” By my reckoning, according to the reports, the events on London Bridge must have begun as she was speaking, or a few minutes afterwards.
Jess Green, who works in education, has built up a reputation online for her poems aimed squarely at past Conservative education secretaries such as Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove and at their attempts – fairly successful, in the case of Gove - to wreck our schools and the morale of teachers and pupils. I’ve seen her perform before, and on Saturday night was impressed by her growing confidence, her humour, and her passion.
Tubthumping was an evening in support of the Labour party that was curated by the poetry editor of the Morning Star newspaper, Jody Porter, and compered by Niall O’Sullivan, who hosts the weekly Poetry Unplugged night. He opened with a poem of his own about “the centre ground”, which he wrote when Jeremy Corbyn first launched his Labour leadersip bid.
Also on the bill was the legendary Tom Pickard, who as a teenage poet in Newcastle in the 1960s founded the Morden Tower readings with his wife Connie, attracting US poets such as Allen Ginsberg to them, and revived the reputation of Basil Bunting. Later he became a documentary filmmaker, focusing on the shipyard workers in Gdansk (Mrs Thatcher very much in favour of them) and the ultimately redundant shipyard workers of Sunderland (Mrs Thatcher rather less sympathetic). Funny, that.
In 1986 he was commissioned by the unions at Sunderland to write a poem – it turned into a song, maybe because the workers requested that it should rhyme – warning of the dangers of casualisation. Soon the Sunderland shipyards had no casual labour; indeed, there were no shipyards in Sunderland at all.
He read out another commissioned poem, this time by Adrian Mitchell, who was poetry editor of the New Statesman at the time, when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party in 1994. ‘Hidden Agenda’ was in the end not used by Mitchell, and Pickard conceded that this may have been because it included the word “fuck” in every line. It’s quite a long poem in the style of Ginsberg, so space could have been an issue, too.
But it would be quite wrong to think of Pickard as just a protest or political poet. He also read from his lyrical Lark & Merlin sequence, written at a time when he was “living in a café, high on the Pennines”. He often saw a lark being pursued by a merlin, and noted that the lark still sang, even while it was being hunted: “And does the merlin, / in fast pursuit of its prey, / tell the fleeing lark it is enamoured of its song?”
He also told the audience: “If any of you have been out, trying to bring down this blood-sucking band of gangsters who are running this country, I applaud you.”
Martin Figura, the first poet of the night, included a poem about the former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, a devotee of the Isles of Scilly, rowing towards the furthest point of the islands, the Bishop Rock lighthouse. The poem ended with a reference to Wilson’s “ugly little” retirement bungalow on the island of St Mary’s. Hannah Lowe’s poems about her family - her Jamaican-Chinese father and his fondness for hanging out his sausages on the washing line in Essex, her “racist Nan”, and her mother’s previous, brief relationship with her dad's jazz musician cousin - were also about the politics of diversity, you could say.
I was sorry to miss Melissa Lee-Houghton in particular, who was reading in the third session, after 10.30pm, but I had that train to catch. As I got off at my stop, it was late, around 12.30am, on Saturday night. One young chap was inquiring hopefully: “Is there a bar on this train?”, while a young girl further up the carriage was berating a friend for “laughing at a time when people have died”. That felt like a very sad moment.