A villanelle for the cup that cheers: Julian Jordon's poem accompanies Refugee Week animation
Refugee Week begins today, Monday 17 June – and Write Out Loud is playing its part. Write Out Loud’s editor-in-chief, Julian Jordon, pictued below, was asked to write a poem to accompany a short piece of animation by Marsden-based Fettle Animation, who had in turn been commissioned by Counterpoint Arts. The theme of Julian’s poem, a villanelle, is “a British cup of tea”. He said:
“I was delighted to take on this commission from Fettle to write a poem for Refugee Week, it being an opportunity to play with the experience of being a foreigner, an outsider in Britain, a country where everyone else is foreign, and what we are and do is ‘normal’. Yet my own background allows me to see this, the country of my birth, from slightly different perspectives. My father was Polish, my mother Irish, her father English and her grandmother French. My mum’s recollections were always of somewhere else, of her poor-but-idyllic childhood in Kildare. She didn’t have an Irish accent because they arrived here when she was seven years old; but she didn’t have a Lancashire accent either (her family lived in Oldham), and would often tell me off for speaking like the locals. Which, of course, set me apart from my peers sometimes.
“My father’s Polish accent and poor English were an embarrassment to me, as a child. He got lots of ‘anti-foreigner’ comments (bloody Pole), yet had been a Polish pilot who flew with the RAF during world war two. Without the Poles, the country might have succumbed to the Germans in the Battle of Britain. He wasn’t here then, but was in a concentration camp in Russia and lucky to survive, joining the RAF in Iran in 1941.
“I am British, born, bred and buttered; and yet, and yet, there are times when I feel different. At secondary school I was bullied by one gang for being Catholic, and by another for being ‘Jewish’ (I have a big nose …). My mother brought me up to put others first, to share what you have, no matter how little. She used to tut-tut at adverts from the local paper: 'Rooms to rent. No coloureds'. Whilst living both in France and in Wales, I have experienced anti-English prejudice. When Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, I remember his idea of ‘sending them back’ made me wonder what it would be like to be ‘sent back’ to Poland, a country I hadn’t visited, whose language I didn’t speak. A position some children might be in now, born here but their parents from elsewhere. It’s worth remembering that it if my father had been sent back to Poland after the war, the chances are that he would have been shot. Stalin wanted no-one around who might oppose his oppressive rule. I mention it as it is like the situation of so many refugees in this country at the moment.
“I chose to write a villanelle for this project because of its repetitive form. Most people remember Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, for its sonorous repetitions. My model was perhaps more Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, about learning to lose things with good grace. The tea references are to the one thing that unifies almost all of us British people, and is the first thing we offer our visitors. Yet it can be strange to those not used to our culture. Even those cultures used to drinking tea, like the Chinese, putting in milk in seems bizarre. But it is what we often seek when needing solace: a nice, hot cup of tea.
“The idea is that at first drinking British tea seems strange, then, as the refugee settles in, the tea becomes a symbol of their acceptance and being accepted. The challenge idea is that those who want to help persuade their fellow citizens to accept refugees often point out their value to the community. And, of course, doctors, nurses and other professionals are cited; but it is more often their children who make the bigger contribution, eventually. It’s a long-term gain, something difficult to explain to a short-term thinking society. Children of refugees are often motivated to learn and to gain qualifications, and keen to work. They are a long-term investment.
“But it is also for reasons that any parent can understand, that we must provide a safe environment for refugees and their families. In the UK, we don’t know what the future holds. Our society could break down, post-Brexit, for instance. None of us knows our children’s future: you too, at times might feel the need to flee. No one knows what their life has in store.
“Funnily enough, the hostile climate quote does reflect Theresa May’s terrible ‘hostile climate for refugees’ policy, but it first arrived in my consciousness when a French friend came over here for a couple of weeks, and declared the countryside beautiful, but a hostile climate. She was talking about the cold, wet weather we often get, which is of course something refugees from warmer climates have to learn to cope with.”
Julian added: “Interviewing the refugees was fascinating and humbling: a highly-confident, go-getting Muslim woman from Sudan, a doctor from El Salvador whose friend (they set up a civil rights group together) was assassinated by the police, so he and his family had to flee for their lives.
“I am delighted with what Fettle have done here, interpreting the poem. It is incredible, as is the music and Lladel’s perfectly pitched reading. The tea is really my view of what makes us British, thus something we share regardless of where we stand on, say, the Brexit debate . In times of crisis (e.g. death in the family), a cup of tea is usually our first resort; and the way we greet people, strangers or friends: put the kettle on.”
Fettle started work on the project by working with local refugee groups and Kirklees council, and visiting local refugees living locally to learn about their experiences. Fettle’s Kath Shackleton said: “We also held open sessions in a town centre venue, where refugees told us their stories. Though very different, everyone spoke of the challenges they had faced, how they had adjusted to their new lives and expressed their gratitude that they have found safety living in the UK. We were moved by their stories and inspired by their determination to create a positive new life for themselves and their families. Poet Julian Jordon was on hand to listen, ask questions and draw together ideas. Julian went on to condense lots of these ideas into a short poem.
“He used the ‘British cup of tea’ as a metaphor for people learning about (sometimes peculiar!) British manners and traditions and also as an image of British warmth and hospitality. We then approached actor Lladel Bryant, who provided the perfect voice.”
Fettle's animation director Zane Whittingham set to work on finding suitable imagery for animation. He said: "I wanted to contrast the delicacy of the poem with some real-world experiences of the refugees we have spoken to. We wanted to evoke some of the harshness of the government's ‘hostile environment’ for refugees, but also to provide a celebration for Refugee Week of the resilience of refugees and the richness of their contribution to Britain.
“Musician Haymanot Tesfa kindly gave us permission to use her beautiful version of Ethiopian traditional song Ambassel to add the perfect flourish.”
Refugee Week takes place every year across the world in the week around World Refugee Day on 20 June. In the UK, Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities.
It started in 1998 as a direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers. Past events have included arts festivals, exhibitions, film screenings, theatre and dance performances, concerts, football tournaments and public talks, as well as creative and educational activities in schools. The theme of Refugee Week 2019 is ‘You, me and those who came before’, an invitation to explore the lives of refugees – and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations. You can watch the video here
- and here’s Julian’s poem:
You, Me and Those Who Came Before
It’s a challenge being a refugee,
trying to live up to those who came before,
And learning how to drink your British tea.
The climate’s hostile, surely you agree?
It never rains, you complain, but it pours.
It’s a challenge being a refugee,
though we now have a flat with our own key,
no longer dread the knock upon the door
and getting used to cups of British tea.
You too, at times might feel the need to flee.
No one knows what their life has in store.
It’s a challenge being a refugee,
keen to prove how useful we can be
to a welcoming community like yours,
inviting us to take a cup of tea.
Thank you, that fewer nightmares there will be:
no more nocturnal images of war.
It’s a challenge, being a refugee,
though easier when sharing your British cup of tea.