Alan Morrison on
Slave Songs and Symphonies
Poems by David Betteridge
Drawings by Bob Starrett
Edited by Mike Quille
Culture Matters an imprint of Manifesto Press (2016)
This new series of poetry pamphlets under the Culture Matters imprint of Manifesto Press are glossily produced and complemented by specially commissioned illustrations throughout, all of which is to emphasize CM’s mission to spread progressive and accessible literature to a wide class-crossing readership (funding from the Unite union puts a stamp to that). This is a bold and brave cultural mission, especially in such reactionary times, and not unlike that of the Left Book Club and Pelican Books back in the 1930s.
The superbly eclectic and engaging CM website (one can almost imagine the ghost of Christopher Caudwell personally endorsing it) has already proven an enormous success attracting a significant readership but above all a broad and hugely varied contributor base. Founding editor of CM and its imprint, Mike Quille, is to be congratulated for such a noble and imaginative progressive enterprise, though his Communist humility, intrinsic to everything he does, would preclude accepting too much personal credit, and he’d only emphasize, admirably, a collective endeavour.
Slave Songs and Symphonies by Glaswegian poet David Betteridge is a consummate and immediately engaging introduction to this new series of poetry pamphlets, a passionate, intelligent but still highly accessible collection of poems that serves as an accomplished primer of contemporary political poetry. Akin to the very Blakeian ethos of Culture Matters the emphasis here is very much on poems as ‘songs’ and Betteridge’s verse has some key aspects in common with the Blake of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and not simply in its associative title. Like Blake, Betteridge composes cadent polemical poems that are ostensibly accessible while offering figurative depth for those readers looking beneath the surface narratives, allusions and dialectics.
The first poem in the chapbook, ‘So Long’, opens with a quote from Italian Marxist writer and political thinker, Antonio Gramsci, a statement of allegiance starting: ‘I am a partisan, I am alive’. This dialectical narrative poem charts the development of historical human consciousness and to its close launches into a kind of Hegelian thesis asserting –in italics– a profound Marxian conception of ‘the Fall’ as humanity’s lapse into feudalism and capitalism:
namely the class divide that brought such woe
into the world, out of a Bronze Age melting pot.
Elites took power to own and rule,
against the interests of the rest,
whose role it was to labour, die, and rot.
the class divide: it is our Original
(and continuing) Sin, to be redeemed, if ever,
only in a Commonweal.
‘In Brecht’s Bar’ starts with a brilliant quote from the eponymous groundbreaking German dramaturg: ‘Who built the seven gates of Thebes?/ The books are filled with the names of kings./ Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?’ This is a short dialogue poem, a verse vignette set in a pub in which one punter speaks to another about the absence of written working-class history:
‘I overheard you talking.
Seems History’s your thing: mine, too,
though all the dates and names
that interest me
are never put in any books at all.’
‘Fighting Back’ is in similar vein, a charming vignette of an elderly veteran protestor who salutes goodbye to a fellow traveller with a ‘thumbs-up, then clenched fist’ –Betteridge is an often very witty poet. ‘Giving Back Riches’ is juxtaposed with a striking photographic collage picture by collaborative artist Bob Stewart featuring the impressive black actor, singer, Communist, political activist and icon of the Harlem Renaissance, Paul Robeson. Betteridge pays emotive tribute to Robeson:
Carrying a deep wound, his and the world’s,
dreaming a generous dream,
following the rainbow and the dove,
he was a giant, serving the people.
He personifies him as many mighty rivers, and other geographical features:
He was Clyde and Volga,
Mississippi, Ganges, Amazon and Nile.
He was Vesuvius.
Robeson was truly a force of nature in many respects, artistically and politically, and an especially courageous man considering the more racially prejudiced times he lived and worked in. As an outspoken Communist, he was also included on the McCarthy blacklist. Betteridge’s eulogy rings directly: 'His echo lingers, loud/ for those with souls to hear'.
The longest poem in the pamphlet is ‘Showing a Way’ and depicts the Upper Clyde Shipyard Work-in of 1971-2, previously commemorated in the excellent Betteridge-edited A Rose Loupt Oot (Smokestack Books, 2012), and reviewed on The Recusant. The poem begins fittingly with an aphorism from Work-in leader Jimmy Reid: ‘We are witnessing an eruption not of lava but of labour’. The Vesuvius of the previous poem and the lava quoted at the top of the following one gives a volcanic quality to the imageries of this selection.
‘Showing a Way’ begins with a passionate assertion that is all the more striking because of its simplicity of expression:
Once upon a time – here,
in the real world, for this is not a fairy tale –
a bold idea changed If to That.
Imagine, acted on by many,
took on the force of hard material fact.
There’s a consciously naïve quality which arguably makes its point more succinctly and potently than anything more poetically oblique could:
This happened many years ago:
the place, the shipyards of the Upper Clyde.
The wonder is, given the world’s wounds since,
the bold idea has not yet died.
This ‘bold idea’ we might conclude is Socialism or Communism. Betteridge’s most sublime poetic moments stand out strikingly amidst his more accessible and direct phrasing and diction –again we have something of a threading leitmotiv in the image of ‘rivers’:
All rivers have their storied past,
in part the same, in part unique.
more than a few have known the pride
of ships well made and safely launched;
and also known, when fortunes ebb,
a shadow-side; but here, at UCS,
a Labour victory was ours,
and Capital, out-classed, endured reversal,
and a loosening of its powers.
From the leitmotiv of ‘rivers’ to the volcanic leitmotiv, reiterating Jimmy Reid’s quote from the top of the poem:
Big on any scale, a volcano, not of lava
but of Labour, burst into flame.
The action that eight thousand workers took
filled the bright skies of politics.
Betteridge venerates the UCS Work-in as a significant victory in the history of class struggle, something groundbreaking even for the more politically restive and radicalised Seventies:
Briefly, social order’s deep assumptions shook.
That is the core of Clyde’s especial claim.
The forces of Capital marked out the shipyard as a ‘Lame duck’ of declining industry. ‘Never mind the lives invested there,/ the teeming skill, the order book!’ Betteridge rightly protests. Then, more defiantly: ‘Dead duck was what it wished to see,/ little knowing that our bird would fly’. There’s then a note of triumph in the following pithily expressed, part-rhyming stanza:
Unite and fight!
In tandem, and in full,
heeding the maxim’s dual elements,
not from the dole outwith the shipyards’ gates,
but working from within:
there lay the workers’ stratagem,
that helped us win.
[The term ‘outwith’ is Scottish and means ‘outside; beyond’]. For this was the unique strategy of this particular strike, a strike which, ingeniously, involved not a downing of tools and a walking off the premises but oppositely a continuation of production as part of a Work-in, or labour lock-in if you like. Like the striking miners of the mid-Eighties, the UCS working strikers were sustained by donations of money, provisions and, just as importantly, messages of moral support, to help keep their bodies and minds together:
This shipyards’ mail bag,
like a farmer’s sack of seed,
spilled out its daily bulge of contents:
news received of rallies, demonstrations, strikes;
well-wishers’ words, and sometimes flowers;
and cash, from corner shops,
from churches, children, unions,
and the whole wide listening world,
sums both large and widows’ generous mites,
sent in comradeship, to keep
the struggle’s fire alight.
But next Betteridge turns his attention to the state of play today:
The yards were saved: the bold idea,
in act, had proved its worth.
But now, several decades on, what’s left?
In place of gain, a creeping dearth.
It is indeed a bleak prospect:
Not only ships have sunk, or gone for scrap,
but yards as well, and jobs, and skills,
and with them, hope.
Capitalism has long laid waste to much of British society, not just industry but communities, solidarity, the hope of socialism. The Thatcherite Tories put paid to such aspirations of fellowship, community and equality, having learnt many strategic lessons from such rare proletarian triumphs as the UCS Work-in (e.g. such as when the Thatcher Government stocked up on coal prior to bringing in its toxic policy to shut down most of the country’s coal mines, having anticipated the immediate effects of miners striking). Thus Betteridge laments:
For Capital, the battle that it lost
was clarion-call and school;
it learned far more than we.
It learned to hone its tools of shock,
displace, lay off, and rule.
Betteridge continues pessimistically using brutalised language to express the brutalisation of the industrial proletariat:
Ganging up and doing down,
it made too many of us settle, first for slices
of the loaf we made, then beggars’ crusts,
then bugger all; ruthlessly,
it grabbed again its habitual crown.
Betteridge perfectly expresses the despair of the Left at the atomisation of the working classes, the chronic decline in social solidarity, and their political alienation from globalisation, all of which has made ripe pickings for the duplicitous populism of Ukip and the embroilment of Brexit:
For us, a tragedy ensued,
its playing-out still under way;
comrades at loggerheads and each others’ throats;
lost sense of purpose and common cause,
parties pulled apart, offering least, not best, resistance
in a losing war.
Betteridge then reflects on the UCS Work-in: ‘how might we have built on it/ and built afresh; how might we, even now,/ still launch upon our carrying stream of deepest need’. So to a defiant historical materialist rallying-cry, a concrete crescendo of class determination in the face of only apparently triumphant capitalism –bolstered by ecological and geological imagery, tectonics, volcanic etc.:
This world shifts restlessly;
a rising flood of tremors agitates beneath;
fresh rifts in what we thought was solid mass
Deep energy demands release.
Eruptions can’t be far: the forest’s clear.
Present struggle cries to know
the complex story of its past.
Take it, save it from erasure,
or revision’s grasp!
What happened here in ’71 and ‘2
can be no Terra Nullius of the mind, open
for errors to invade: it’s where,
ablaze and wise, we entered history,
and showed a way whereby a future
might be made.
Perhaps my favourite poem in this chapbook is ‘A Fish Rising’, which employs a beautiful metaphor of the carp for the seemingly slow even glacial emergence of socialism from the muddy depths of capitalist pond, of socialism’s dormancy, that even at times when it seems to be absent, it is still with us albeit invisibly beneath the surface of vicissitudes, and that it can take a long time for it to slowly float up and break through that historical surface. But socialism is always there as long as there is oppression; it is the ineffaceable shadow of just outrage cast by planted colossus of capitalism –its anathema and ultimate nemesis.
Betteridge begins with a profound quote from revolutionary figure Rosa Luxemburg: ‘The revolution will raise itself up again…/ it will proclaim: I was, I am, I shall be…’. ‘A Fish Rising’ is perhaps an example of what William Empson defined as ‘covert pastoral’ in his book Some Versions of Pastoral (1935): that is to say poetry which appears on the surface as pastoral or bucolic in terms of imagery but which is actually polemical, even politically subversive, in its underlying messages. Betteridge presents us with natural imagery and metaphor to evoke the sometimes dormant but ever-restless spirit of socialism:
From the bottom of an ancient pool,
said to be bottomless,
up to the film of its meeting with the still air,
hungry, in search of fly or grub,
a fat carp rises.
The use of natural imagery here is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney and, at times, the darker twists of Ted Hughes –the following is a beautifully wrought trope:
With a barbed kiss,
it breaks the surface and the silence
of this summer’s day, and eats;
then, glidingly, it noses
back to the cool of its brown deep,
a world away.
The striking phrase ‘brown deep’ is distinctly Hughesian; the enjambment after ‘deep’, partitioning off the trope ‘A world away’, is particularly powerful in expressing the sharp separation between idealism and reality. Betteridge then casts an eye back through history as he contemplates this deep ancient pond:
Romans in their heyday were the first
to stock this pool; thereafter, monks
hymning their dead
and risen god, tended the fish,
until in turn
their fortunes, like the Romans’,
There then ensues a beautifully phrased, profound trope which is at once rueful as it is hopeful:
Now, at another epoch’s ruined end,
the world in flames,
I pace the foot-worn path around the pool;
heavy with thought,
I count the failed resurgences
that history has seen, brief flowerings
of the people’s will.
they grew wild, their early promise
of a new-style beauty, unremembered now,
or else despised.
The phrase ‘brief flowerings/ of the people’s will’ is particularly emotive of the struggle of socialism and its' only periodic surfacing. Betteridge again defiantly appropriates lost battles in the cause of socialism as instructive vicissitudes: ‘succeeding Calvaries along the way may serve/ as school and seed of future victory’. The poem’s momentum becomes almost visionary:
Eurydice sang, a women’s choir.
I had heard them at a May Day years before.
Now, at the fish-pool’s side, in my mind’s replay,
they sang again, ballads in praise
of two dead giants of our foundering cause.
Then there’s a flourish of Glaswegian idiolect:
Forward tae Glesga Green we’ll march in guid order…
aye there, man, that’s johnnie noo –
that’s him there, the bonnie fechter.
Lenin’s his fiere, an’ Leibknecht his mate…
Betteridge then depicts two past figureheads of the historic Left, Scots Bolshevik and founder of the Scottish Workers Republican Party, who died at just 44 after his health had been destroyed through forced feeding while imprisoned, John Maclean, here a spectre ‘pale-faced, hoarse-voiced’, and the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist martyr, who died at the hands of German soldiers in the aftermath of the failed Spartacist uprising of 1919 –she’s invoked by Betteridge thus:
The other: passionate, an optimist,
convinced that everyone can contribute a mite,
or more, to all our hope’s refashioning,
until a soldier’s rifle butt abruptly put a stop
to all her eloquence, cracking her proud head
like a coconut.
Maclean and Luxemburg:
their lives’ example burns,
sticking in our consciences,
like sulphur flames.
Betteridge brings this brilliant poem to its defiant end in an almost incantatory tone which stirs the spirit:
I see a movement in the pool,
a glimpse of mottle, a sun-reflecting curve,
a twist of tail and fin.
One speck of dirt, or gold,
can tip the heaviest-laden balance
from the straight.
(Taking hope, I count some auguries
One fact, discrepant with the dogma
of the orthodox, can breach its errors’ edifice,
One wound, one cry, one song,
one name can travel faster than a Caesar’s hate.
We are – or might become –
a force more powerful than earthquakes,
cyclones, lava-flows, or a river’s wearing-down
of mountains to peneplain.
Slowly rising, the carp begins once more
to stir, to swim.
It’s interesting to see again the leitmotivs of ‘lava’ and ‘rivers’. The restraint of the final trope abruptly arrests the onward rush of the verses leading up to it but tantalises by ending on infinitives, which indicate continuation, action: in this case, socialism is in the process of resurfacing again as a causal force.
‘Pulling the Plug’ is a poem-polemic expressing opposition to the reprehensible and remorseless welfare reforms of the past six years although this is not explicit in the poem itself (the Notes at the back of the pamphlet elucidate this). Betteridge captures well the sense of outrage and moral disgust at the apparent insouciance of ministers who have seemingly with impunity salami-sliced hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, sick and disabled out of existence. Betteridge’s invective pulls no punches in its directness:
The killer nods, pretends to listen,
curves his mouth in a lean grin.
I see a shark, in his element,
sure of his next and every win.
The killer manages a judicious tear.
(‘I empathise; I go to church; I care…’)
I see an obvious reptile here.
The killer laughs.
I see an ape, exulting in his dominance.
Betteridge’s explains in the Note to this poem that this is a ‘composite’ of various ministers, but it’s almost impossible to read this particular stanza without picturing the chief culprit of the benefit cuts and so-called ‘welfare reforms’, the egregious and pathologically arrogant Iain Duncan Smith who is certainly reptilian in manner and is a self-proclaimed Roman Catholic and church-goer.
No doubt IDS is a particular figure of hate in Betteridge’s native Glasgow, since, it was in the deprived Easterhouse –which is, I believe, part of the larger impoverished area of the Gorbals– that the future Work and Pensions Secretary apparently had his ‘Damascene moment’ on first witnessing abject poverty there. IDS apparently shed a tear on that occasion, and also later shed ‘a judicious tear’ when being interviewed by Ian Hislop in a documentary about the history of British welfare provision when talking about a young destitute single mother he’d met.
IDS’s answer to such cases: strip state support from the third child up! Duncan Smith certainly is a reptile in the sense he cries crocodile tears. The poem’s title is a double play: it’s the incensed Glaswegian TV viewer pulling the plug of the TV set after having enough of watching Tory ministers justify the unjustifiable while also summoning to mind the what the Government has administratively been doing to countless incapacitated and seriously ill claimants over six years.
‘The Tug of It’ remembers the countless past half-forgotten proletarian lives that once gave shape and spirit to various streets, houses, objects and tools of trade. After an aphorism on the sempiternal nature of history by the recently departed John Berger, this partly ekphrastic poem begins with a meditation on static written history, on less-remembered and under-recorded working-class lives and histories, and conjures the ghosts of these proletarian pasts:
Sitting among books, listening inwardly,
we sense each writer importune:
Free me from the limbo of the printed past.
Let me join you; let me hear, through you,
my silenced tongue at last.
There is then what might be termed a class-Dendrochronology:
Looking at the tools we have,
thinking as we work with them,
we meet the many hands before us
that have altered, useably, their make
and fit: a chain of rafts runs back,
and back, and we can feel the tug of it.
On a prosodic note, the use of internal rhyme here is a deft touch, and one is almost reminded at times in Betteridge’s more metrical passages of Martin Bell, Tony Harrison and Andy Croft. Betteridge pays tribute to numberless shadowy working-class lives as he is happily haunted by class-ancestors:
Standing in a field of stooks,
or wandering the streets of any town,
we see at every turn
the trace and monument of many folk.
That latter phrase is particularly striking [‘stooks’ is a term for a clutch of sheaves set upright in a field to dry]. The stanza continues evocatively:
That path across the well-worked rigs –
those whose feet first trod it,
those who came each year to plough
and sow and harvest, and maintain the ditch,
while empires grew, then died…
that house or factory or school or shop –
those who gave to it their given time,
in living there and work…
Betteridge concludes the poem on a note of eternal remembrance: ‘They are all accessible through memory/ to us, and in memory persist’.
‘Essential Gifts’ is a glorious song for socialism primed on a simple but profound aphorism from Scottish mill worker and socialist activist, Mary Brooksbank, which invokes the socialist aspiration of a material heaven on earth: ‘This surely was what you were created for,/ to make this here a hereafter’. The poem is a part-lament for a historically maltreated Scotland:
Generations left this land.
Emptied glens, and mills and mines
grassed-over now, and hard-built hopes
knocked flat by the frequent wrecking ball
bear witness to a long ebb
of clearance, exile, and decline.
Driven by hunger and the loaded gun,
seeing no future here worth dying for,
wave upon living waves, our forebears travelled
far, no continent unmarked by the ill
or good of their setting there;
but this plot of earth to which we cling,
can feast us all, and others too, who join us now,
if only tended with a lover’s care.
It’s an almost hymn-like paean to proletarian Scotland but one which, in Betteridge’s signature tone, rises to a defiantly optimistic close:
There are riches heaped around,
ready for our harvesting, essential gifts
of sea and air and common ground.
We, by hand and brain, can labour them,
creating goods, enough to share.
Our class has made a start.
Things change; we make them change,
as we, like fortune, like the seasons,
like the seas’ tides, turn; and, having turned,
we see in full the great worth
of our now and future land.
The collection closes on ‘Only in a Commonweal’. The poem is preceded by another aphorism of Rosa Luxemburg’s: ‘Where the chains of Capitalism are forged,/ there they must be broken…’. This poem is again a kind of proletarian hymn that reminds how it is the common citizens of capitalist societies that keep it functioning and producing and manufacturing, the same ‘proles’ or ‘plebs’ who are, of course, called up to be sacrificed for said societies in times of conflict. This is the only poem –perhaps because it is the closing one– which is centre-justified:
We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.
Expendable, we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for, but have none.
This is a fiercely defiant anthem for the unsung working- or ‘maintenance’-class of capitalist society, its’ operators, producers, carriers, pallbearers:
Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.
Every sweated brick and girder, every milligram and tonne
of every building you command is ours.
Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed is ours.
Your wealth-producing factories, your cities – ours!
Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need
from reservoir to tap; we stitch the clothes
that cover up your nakedness,
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.
Then we come to the crescendo of the closing poem and of this deeply affecting and accomplished collection as a whole with the invocation of its collective title:
We are your numerous and essential kin.
Suffering most, we learn most.
Our slave-songs make symphonies;
our longings, creeds.
And finally, to earth with a thud in a phrase which reverberates like a spade hitting stone:
We dig your graves.
David Betteridge’s Slave Songs and Symphonies deserves and demands re-reading and the directness and accessibility of its poetic language and political message combined with the musical song-like tone of the poems themselves makes it more mnemonic in quality than most poetry collections. Glossily produced, and brilliantly illustrated by Bob Starrett, it is almost a secular hymn-book for the proletariat and in that sense is authentically Blakeian and an exemplary introduction to the poetic mission of Culture Matters.
As mentioned at the start of this review, the indefatigable founding editor of CM and its imprint, Mike Quille, who is also poetry editor for the Communist Review and a regular contributor to the Morning Star, is to be congratulated for bringing this all together so professionally and with such polish. This heart-warming and highly accomplished chapbook is heartily recommended to all classes, strata, and, particularly, culture-thirsty autodidacts.
Alan Morrison © 2017