Alan Morrison on
Dancing With Big Eunice –
Missives from the frontline of a fractured society
Luath Press (Edinburgh, 2010) 96pp
Foreword by Ruth Wishart
Poems of Polemical Impetigo
In her Foreword, Ruth Wishart alludes to the simmering ‘white knuckled rage’ that infuses Alistair Findlay’s poetic exposé of a lifetime in social work in Scotland and England. Indeed, Findlay’s professional CV – including, among numerous positions, Convenor of the Lothian Region Social Work Shop Stewards Committee (1982-6) – is testament to the experiential ‘true grit’ that under-gravels the robust and hard-hitting, empirically polemical, darkly witty and unflinching poems collected in this socially revelatory collection. The etymology of the curiously picaresque-sounding title is explained by Findlay in his fascinating Preface, which is worth excerpting in itself, succinctly yet poetically phrased as much of it is:
‘BIG EUNICE’ is a metaphor for ‘clients’ – the people statutory social workers deal with; ‘Dancing with’ is a euphemism for what that often feels like; ‘knee-trembling’ is the politest term I could think of to suggest the loss of apprenticeship innocence – ‘virginity’ – I experienced as a raw recruit to the fledgling profession of ‘generic’ (one door) social work in my first job with Falkirk Burgh all of 36 years ago. One could add that ‘Big Eunice’ had few pretensions either about herself or me. The result:
Dancing with Big Eunice was,
I must confess,
a complete knee-trembling experience.
She was a big girl, big and bonnie,
big in tights, and without oany
The poeticised ‘case studies’ in this collection are less the perennial ‘tearjerkers’ as uncompromisingly candid, sometimes excoriating character portraits of countless clients Findlay has worked with over the decades, and on the no-holds-barred approach he takes to enshrining many of them in verse, the poet relates:
the client population should not be confused with the self-effacing, shrinking violets depicted in social policy essays using terms like ‘the deprived’ or ‘the poor’, which might suggest a certain passive resignation in the face of Want, Ignorance, Disease. Such terms may apply in some cases, but by no means all. Resignation and victimhood may co-exist with sticking-up for oneself, physically and verbally.
In Findlay’s oeuvre then, we enter the uncomfortable but vital realm of social document in poetry, or what one might describe as socialist literature on proletarian subjects; and, more importantly, that which is composed from ground-level, rather than mostly hypothetically, as well-intentioned but more circumstantially remote social documenters of yore, such as Storm Jameson.
Findlay makes some important points about the commoditisation of modern welfare as demonstrated through an increasingly ‘marketised’ vocabulary:
Disrespect is in my view when the language of corporate capitalism is used in the welfare arena to describe relations between the state and its subjects in commodity terms: ‘clients’ are now addressed in policy documents as ‘customers’ or ‘consumers of services’, as though those placed on Probation could take their business elsewhere if they did not get on with the social workers allocated to them. … The misguided aspirations through which government ministers and their corporate management creatures offer up social workers as cure-alls for a fragmented society in fact ends, with media compliance, in social workers being held responsible for the misbehaviour of the people they are busy trying to help. This is as credible as holding the police responsible for the criminals they are trying to catch.
All this makes for a crucial and never more timely polemical intervention on the embattled social work profession, soon no doubt to go into total meltdown in this age of austerity cuts to health and social care and the mass pauperisation of the welfare caps (the dark flipside to what is murkily termed ‘gentrification’ in inner-city areas whereby thousands of benefit-capped families are effectively being mass evicted from their homes to make room for better-heeled tenants). Findlay makes some extremely astute points from his experiences, and encapsulates the bind of the social worker as the perennial first ports of blame for any social vicissitudes which occur among their often unmanageably wide clientele:
Too much is now expected of social workers, who are neither clairvoyants nor ‘engineers of the soul’, as Stalin once called poets … The people referred to social workers are often emotionally damaged and alienated individuals but their behaviour is often not easily distinguishable from the oddly eccentric or the wayward and downtrodden for whom society, and society’s laws, also exist. These are the daily conundrums which statutory social workers in particular face in their work…
Findlay’s Preface, at times, reads as a prose poem in its own right, faintly reminiscent of the poetic prose of Iain Sinclair:
I was curious myself as to what would emerge when the Scottish Arts Council awarded me a writer’s bursary to produce a collection of poems on social work and social workers after 35 odd years on the ‘front-line’ of Scottish local authority social work practice – a bang, a whimper, a Munch-like Scream, a Whitmanesque Yolp, all of the above? What I did not expect was the white-knuckled rage that erupted when I sat down before the metaphoric ‘blank page’.
To the poetry itself: it is uniformly accomplished and well-crafted, buoyed on real anger and energy, sardonic wit, imaginative brio and a use of language which varies in style and tone, from the sinuous and muscularly verbal, to the more direct and unadorned – the subjects determine the shape, rhythm and linguistic character of each poem. At his more sparsely lyrical and descriptively succinct moments, Findlay shares much in common with the similarly socially engaged poet, Ian Parks.
The collection opens with a rumbustious monologue, ‘I am Robert Burns, headcase’, which is inspissated with spoonfuls of Scots dialect and earthily demotic adjectives. Here are some excerpts:
…my flouting gyte rules and conventions,
my long-suffering wife, my neighbours,
poor Holy Willie, whose religious beliefs
I discriminate against, my reprobate
companion, Tam O’Shanter, a blethering,
blustering, drunken blellum, I cannot
deny it, my sanity may lie in the balance,
my support for the French Revolution,
my purchase of cannons, my cadging
songs from the poor and unworthy…
…my laughing at
magistrates – I must be bipolar,
or else a Republican: I scream at the tv when
Blair gets a mention, there’s some talk of
Sections, and someone called Asbos, I drink
in the Masons, I do not vote Labour, I may
turn Scots National, I fear I’m not normal
and perhaps never have been.
This is a colourful and vibrant testament of marginalisation ventriloquised with arresting verisimilitude by a highly perceptive and empathetic ‘witness’ of the ex-social worker poet.
In ‘My First Adoption’, Findlay relates how he had to write a letter to be opened by a child given up for adoption when she reached sixteen – it ends all the more movingly due to Findlay’s employment of suitably clinical language for the elliptical formality of procedures:
your mother wanted to keep you
but of your father little is known
except he was tall, had black hair
and blue eyes and perhaps came from Glasgow.
One of my personal favourites in this collection is ‘Charity’ – a timely piece given the voucher-and-food-parcel nature of our current ‘Big Society’ – which is as much a small social document, or menu for contemporary poverty, as a poem. It demands to be quoted in full:
Charity, students I’d make write essays on,
their feelings, attitudes, beliefs, is it part,
or not, of the gift-relationship their tutors
keep harking on about, or a throw-back,
soup-kitchens, carding for lice, impetigo,
‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’?
Spell out how you’d spend twelve months
of the year saying ‘No’ to the underclass,
then, for one day only, open all the doors,
burst out the boxes for the poor! I remember
when, in 1973, a 15-pound turkey was donated
by a man who wanted to deliver it himself, yes,
to the chosen ones. It would not go in the oven,
the gas for which had been disconnected: discuss.
‘The new born baby’ is another searing portrait of a case study:
her mother already gone from the hospital
to a drug den
her grandmother unwilling to come
from Carlisle, Pitlochry, Pittenweem
with her heart condition
the grandfather already in prison, dead
the subject of several previous convictions
against his own children
the child sleeps on, blissful,
unaware that someone like me has
already been phoned, care
arranged, and for the next four
years her mother will promise to change
her lifestyle, give up her addiction,
fail, try again, fail…
Poems such as these are rarities in today’s increasingly embourgoised poetry scene: neo-Dickensian miniatures of the marginalised and dispossessed. Another favourite of this writer’s is the short poem-cum-social document, ‘Poverty’, which powerfully evokes the very distinct olfaction of its universal subject (the phenomenon which George Orwell addressed with his notoriously de-contextualised trope, ‘the working classes smell’, in The Road to Wigan Pier (Victor Gollancz/Left Book Club, 1937)). Anyone who has either experienced long-term poverty or witnessed that of others, specifically within the domestic setting, will immediately relate to the profoundly evocative descriptions in this important poem, which also deserves quoting in full:
Poverty has a smell, it’s kind of dank
and musty, like you find gathered underneath
a leaky sink, in cramped, airless, overheated
rooms, bare floorboards, carpets strewn with
debris, but no toys, clutter, the junk that no one
bothers to remove for no one notices the stink,
the crunching under foot, or calls growling dogs
to heel, Alsatians mainly, that do quite literally
steal the food from out the mouths of babes,
whose sticky fingers point and stare and clamber
over strangers’ knees and poke your hair like
you are long-lost cousins, not social workers
only there to inspect the premises, motivations,
a new lodger, lying on a chair, not yet wakened
That opening line is particularly evocative of that certain odour of staleness, of trapped air, that pervades the stasis of impoverished domesticity. ‘Outside’ paints olfactory and aural impressions of the chronic obscurity of those who occupy the council estates of social workers’ circuits, almost personifying the residences themselves, some of which ‘stank of pain, loneliness, humiliation’ or ‘cried or raged or threatened’. ‘Inside’ is another evocatively ventriloquised monologue, scored through with Scots brogue and onomatopoeiac parochial dialect:
an old labourer, me, in winter weather
inside, hanging the pee, sweeping the floor
in plain view of the gaffer, an oaf, a fud
a forelock tugger, a repeater of phrases
cascading, day and daily, guffage, sent down
from the air-holes of the Scottish Executive
crud, geegaws, paper-hats, bells to ring and
whistles to blaw at the ear-holes of paupers
while I, in this bourach masquerading, this
beer-tent, do as I am able: I sweep the floor
[Note: bourach is Scots/Gaelic for ‘small hill, mound, disorganised heap’; some of the other unusual words in this poem appear to be Middle English in origin, though fud could also be Scots, meaning ‘tale of a hare or woollen waste’].
‘Workers’ is a rousing paean to the perennial labourer, or journeyman, and has an echo of the Jack Cades, which again warrants reproducing in full:
Let me have about me workers who are fat
In the beam, but not in the head, well-fed
Natures that give cuddles or straight-talk
Without breaking stride, nor skulk nor hide
In their offices nor strut about in the shade of
Legalese, nor the fear of weak-kneed Seniors,
Afraid of God knows what, of making a mistake?
God, mistakes are what this world is made of,
Our daily bread, so let them not distort our
Features, we band of brothers, sisters, whose
Reward will not be found in headlines nor
Gongs hung round the necks of wasters. No!
We do our work in the people’s cause, firing
Haylofts, saving maidens, slaying robber barons.
‘The Senior Social Worker’ is a shockingly hard-hitting poem, but in that, again, an essential one, which needed to be written as verse witness. It’s about a scrupulously by-the-book social worker whose bible is the ‘[Scotland] Act 1995’, a covenant with his clients whereby he must (in a bravura alliterative display)
from public-opinion, press-gangs, panels,
politicians, perverts, piss-poor-parenting,
prefects, po-faced professionals, plook-
sookers and persons who drink polish.
[Note: apparently plook is a Scots noun, a variant of plouk, which means ‘pimple’; Scot for ‘sucking’ or a ‘sycophant’, so presumably plook-sooker presumably means something like ‘pimple sucker’…?]. The shock of this poem comes in the grisly exposition of a report the social worker is forced to read:
his own daughter, aged nine, when his wife
became ill, because he was a strong Christian
and did not wish to break his marriage vows
by going outside the family. Her vaginal
walls are split and she may never have a
child of her own. The senior social worker
looks out of the window, and growls.
This is followed by the slightly lighter (it could hardly be darker!) ‘The Consultant’s on the Phone Again’, where Findlay again displays a deft punch with alliteration: ‘the Voice of God calling, in clipped tones, / for the taking of a Child Protection Order’. There’s an almost sing-song Scots brogue to this poem:
but, the legislation’s plain – it says,
‘significant harm’ must be shown before
a Sheriff, only the medic’s come up ‘inconclusive’,
and the surgeon’s no sayin’, along wi’ him, that
the bruising’s ‘unexplained’, so, he’s going
to report me to my boss for not doing as I’m told,
by him! – well, if it gives them any pleasure –
I’ve more important things to do than bandy words
wi’ him –
like sending out three workers
and a coallie-dug,
to shore the whole thing up.
‘Process Recording’ is another poignant piece in which a social worker senior mumbles lachrymosely that a case report sounds “Shakespearean” (in the tragic sense, naturally). ‘Social Workers on Tractors’ is an exceptionally figurative piece on the atomisation of social work:
Suddenly, we were genericised, overnight,
professionalised, mechanised and sat astride
our tractors, gleaming in the morning light,
mean-machines, tearing round the countryside
draining swamps, marshlands, with the alligators
staring at us, strange creatures, strange vocabularies;
not by candlelight we led them, like fallen girls,
but straight through the barnyards, reformatories,
old workhouses, hospitals for the poor, gears
crashing, engines revving, hencoops scattering,
on and on we dragged them, heading for Jerusalem!
This is a brilliantly lyrical and aphorismal polemical poem, particularly in its symbolic representation of – what I presume is meant to represent – the socially marginalised clients, as ‘alligators’ with ‘strange vocabularies’. ‘Ian Slater’s Overcoat’ is almost like a latter day ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ nursery rhyme for the broken society:
Today, we have the Ian Slater overcoat,
genuine RSSPCC, large and roomy,
whole families once sheltered in its shade,
its inside pocket doubling as a place-of-safety,
and eighty-nine cases he had between Stirling
and Slamannan, and only himself, a female
assistant and a collie-dog to visit them, and,
every three months, a meeting held between the
whipper-in, school nurse and him, the cruelty man.
The title of ‘Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers’ is taken from part of Tom Wolfe’s 1970 Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and is suitably readapted to the context of bureaucratic showdown between ‘the establishment/ and the underclass
a wee guy looking across
the desk at me in 1973 in Falkirk Burgh
social work department (side-chads, smoking
a roll-up – him, no me!) whose ancestors had
no doubt made the English feel unwelcome at
Findlay’s rich fount of historical and literary allusion lends a distinctly cultured quality to some of the more quixotic sketches of his fundamentally Marxian take on contemporaneous social document; an historical materialist sensibility transfigured into a dialectical poeticism.
The title poem is a tour de force of cadence, rhythm and patois; like its eponymous personified motif, it is a muscular poem at full-throttle which seizes you on reading it – here’s an excerpt:
from her hips and curved roond
like welded sheets of metal on the bow-sprits
of the Queen Mary – she was hairy –
where she needed to be – oan her heid! –
she had ringlets and curls, swirls and swurls,
and her eyes seemed to follow your crotch,
and wink Hi! as you walked by her room.
Her own walk was indescribable but went
something like – Boom-Boom!
(The homphonous pairing, ‘swirls and swurls’, is noteworthy). The last stanza breaks out from the decorum of tercets into a verbal beat with an almost bebop tempo:
Her lips were soft, her breath was sweet,
you were in her grip, as her tongue unfurled
inside your cheek, and downward drove
towards your feet – where it turned and
growled, then upward hurled until it curled
around your waist, looking – no, licking –
sucked you up and hung you inside-out
to die, o my o my – nobody ever kissed you
better – except, perhaps, Wee Marion –
though she’ll deny it to this day.
‘Care in the Community, ‘74’ provides one of the most authentic-sounding descriptions of the type of physiognomy so often testament to a life of fag-filliped, vitamin-deficient hardship: ‘Fifty, he looked 98, cheeks clapped-in, / no teeth, a mournful monk, / a rabbit caught in headlights’. On a textural note, ‘Panels’ demonstrates again Findlay’s sharply aural grasp of language: ‘Miss Gee retired, thank Christ, satiated, Chair/ of Falkirk Burgh’s Panel, an ex-headmistress’. ‘Tailgunner Parkinson’ offers us another picaresque character, though this time an insider, a whistleblowing probation officer whose own unorthodox means to the truth impeach himself in the process:
Old Tailgunner, they got him in the end,
of course, but what a hoot he was, urbane,
irreverent, his New Society columns chock
full of Romantic English prose, Shelley,
Byron, Blake, a wee bon mot then wham!
…he too got his in the tail-end, grassed
himself up too, in his own column, for
giving old cons cash to keep them out of prison
…shot down for offending
market-forces, and endless mocking laughter.
‘Here to read the meter, friend’ is one of the most candid poems in the collection, conjuring to mind what by less experiential or empathetic pens would be stereotyping, but by that of a veteran social worker, a sobering glimpse into some of the grittier truths behind such stereotyping (Bill Sykes crossed with Rab C Nesbitt, minus pit bull):
…our job was to care
and deal with those whom God and the
class-system made and coincidence
and the Poll-Tax had cast asunder, Life’s
troubadours, Tommy Sheridan’s crew,
mixed-in with victims and psychopaths,
whose doors you’d knock and sometimes hope
would be not there, not standing in the lobby
looking grim, rent book in one hand, meat
cleaver in the other: how tempting to have
called out then: here to read the meter, friend!
It’s a tribute to Findlay’s Dickensian eye that he can so effortlessly draw out humour from the grimmest of imageries. ‘Notes Towards a Novel’ is a biting slice of occupational misanthropy, or what is today termed ‘compassion fatigue’, which would undoubtedly throw a particularly long shadow on the well-seasoned social worker:
This may underestimate the case.
James Baldwin hated blackness
and whiteness, and the unbelievable
streets. He knew race doesn’t matter,
class doesn’t matter, sex doesn’t
matter, nothing matters except your
humanity. I am a social worker, I
hate people and their appetites for grief.
Few poems could be said to begin so graphically as ‘The Client Said’:
The client said he was unaware
children were in the room
when he started rubbing his genitals
against the TV screen
because Gordon Brown came on
and he hates him.
Its straight-in-your-face punchiness of exposition juxtaposed with viscerally disturbing subject matter reminds this writer of Wigan poet Peter Street: like Street, Findlay is able to depict truly shocking incidents comically, a sort of ‘farcical tragedian’ quality:
The client said she burned
her left leg by pouring diesel
over it and setting it alight
but the pain got too much
so she thought if she drank
the rest it might knock her out.
‘Monday Morning Duty’ is another ‘gallows humour’ coping stone of a poem, darkly witty but equally polemical:
I’ve read all the Emergency Referrals
– the Unrulies, the Self-Harms,
the Runaways, the Admissions, the
general round of Domestics and
Violations of the Peace – whit, in this dump?
‘Snap-shot’ finds Findlay back in angrier mood, still faintly satirical, but sourly so, as he describes a councillor’s photo shoot glossed up for public consumption:
councillor standing beside a wheel-chair,
not, I imagine, some child being forensically
examined for rape, a disaffected yob, an
ingrate, a doubly incontinent brain-damaged
inebriate, least of all, a drug-addict in prison
for injuring that child, because, you see
are just some things the great British public
just doesn’t want to know about, or look at –
whether you photograph them, or not.
‘Shrubhill’ offers an amusing interlude whereby the poet and his social work colleague greet each other in a corridor in footballing mimes. ‘Work-to-Rule!’ is a vignette on the internecine trials of the shop steward, written in a conversational, anecdotal tone. ‘Big Tam Says’ continues this theme of industrial relations, or lack of, in a caustic take on the tribulations of trades unionism:
Big Tam says we should have
gone into basw, the professional organisation,
instead of slaving in the unions, nalgo, unison,
and all for the collective right of binmen
to work unlimited overtime in North Lanarkshire.
Big Tam says if we’d our time over again
we’d take no prisoners, oppose the machinations
of the corporate state, expose corruption
in low places, agitate for the professional assessment
of need no matter the cost to the taxpayer.
Big Tam, I says, I thought we’d done that already:
oh, aye, he says,
but next time we’ll no be such Bloody Mr Nice Guys.
‘Managers’ is a hilariously sardonic Marxian little gem, which begins:
Managers, to adapt Lenin, were once
good men fallen among Fabians, but now
are vermin and should be taken out and rehired
‘No Problemo’ is a particularly touching sketch in which the poet (as social worker) tries to console and bodily cushion a distraught eight year old following a ‘hearing that would not/ send him home’:
I feel his heart thumping against
my frame as we stand, or rather
crouch, in this foetal exchange
the world, and now me, weighed
round tiny Quasimodo-shoulders
until he breaks into a sob and rushes
forward to his carer demanding fish
for tea later.
‘Social Welfare: a Fantasy in Scots’ reads almost like a miniature Wasteland on archaic penal edict juxtaposed with contemporary social injustices:
The gaberlunzie stood
on Waverley Steps
the pennies in her blanket
Ane cried the Meanistry o’ Social
hae pished in thir mooths
[Note: gaberlunzie is a mediaeval Scots word for ‘licensed beggar’]. This curious piece incorporates a fascinatingly draconic excerpt from the Statutes of Perth 1422-1524, which sounds disturbingly familiar in terms of rapidly reviving ‘Big Society’ attitudes of punishment as retribution, and punishment rather than help as the more effective means to tackle poverty:
Maisters o’ Correction sal entertain wasters, sornars,
overlayers or maisterful thiggers [all types of beggars]
harbouring on kirkmen or husbandmen [medieval taxpayers]
an bi a’ correction necessary or sever, whipping or other
wise [excepting torture]
The poem starts with a timelessly relevant quote from one William Thorn’s Justice Made Easy in Tait’s Magazine of 1857: Fellow, you have broken our laws! Yes, your Honour, but not before your laws had broken me.
‘Section 12’ is another chillingly contemporary-sounding polemic:
Section 12, the duty on local authorities to
promote social welfare, hailed as a revolutionary
clause. Santa Claus more like.
…like the rest of social work, beyond
rational analysis, an act of faith, used in the early
days to employ community workers to organise
rent strikes, petition councils, fix drains, but it
couldn’t last, councils paying rent arrears to
stop children coming into care.
the Tories began to eradicate poverty by selling off
council houses, we were told by the suits to only
pay a fiver per head per child – for lost giros, purses.
So little changes, it seems. ‘Swearing’ is another hilarious vignette, recounting the poet (as social worker) acts as interpreter for an Irish client detained in a police station:
of an hour. I said, you understand a word?
Nut, she said. Well neither did I, but the gist o’ it
wis, dae it again and you’ll be offski, you’ll be exhere,
aw right? She smiled. I’d made myself a friend.
‘Reading Files’ relates how clients are often far less ‘dragon-like’ than their case files might suggest:
stop in case you imagine
this great towering beast
with a huge fiery tongue
and glittering eyes
because in will come
this wee specky person
‘Supervision’ again comments on the social worker as institutional scapegoat for perceived behavioural leakages of clients into the public and media spheres, tellingly beginning:
I was only supervised myself
for about ten minutes in 1973
The side-splittingly titled ‘An Early Social Work Training Film, Shot in 1973, starring Robert Mitchum’ does not disappoint in its crackling language and satirical tone:
‘A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash’,1
an owl hoots, Vincent Price laughs, a police car
cruises past as the poem pans through film-noir
towards neglected lives, rats, psychopaths,
dwells on tenemented stairs, fag-ash,
then leaps to rub our backs on fictive air
that hangs like fetid breath, balderdash, haar
round Partick Cross, Maryhill, Alcatraz.
But who cares, for here comes Robert Mitchum,
social worker extraordinaire, a mug-shot,
and then he climbs the stair, finds a loose one,
then he’s at the door he’s looking for. He knocks.
A man with an axe appears, looking glum:
‘Take them’, he says, ‘the wife, the weans, the lot.’
This ‘movie verse’ is reminiscent of the similar filmic poems of Robert Dickinson (Micrographia, Waterloo Press, 2010). The lazy-eyed Mitchum, starring here in what might be titled, Philip Marlowe – social worker, makes for a ludicrously inappropriate elbow-patched interpolator:
‘A shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close.’
‘He’s doing what The Social does to us’,
the axe-man says. Bob sighs. ‘I’ll call the fuzz.
Axeman, you’re not my scene. Adios.’
And then down crumbling stairs Bob Mitchum goes
Bob yawns. ‘Why don’t Probation carry guns?
Can I not at least shoot the dog, the weans?
This social work’s all crap, they talk like nuns
and fill out forms and make expenses claims
and bleat about the dead-beats, bad-guys, huns.
Who gives a shit for bums, the shit-for-brains?’
This is ingenious comic verse, made all the more amusing for its serendipitous rhymes:
Axeman pauses, lights another cigarette.
Bob looks glum, he’s heard it all before, would bet
a pound to a bird’s-shite Axeman’ll be creased
by noon in some crummy joint, Rab C Nesbitt’s
most like, ‘victim’ boaked all across his vest,
kept warm by whisky-chasers. ‘Jesus Christ,
Axeman’, Bob explodes, ‘what about the weans? Forget
the booze, the greeting in your drinks. Be a man,
my son, or you will die a low-life, loser,
bum!’ The Axeman meets Bob’s gaze. ‘But ah am
a bum’, Axe says, ‘and, yes, by god, a slaver,
but never count me out, Bob, for I can turn
my life round now, if I model your behaviour.’
It all ends with a polemical punch and genuine belly-laugh:
‘Let them eat cake’, made no bones about it’.
If Marie Antoinette’d lived in Govan
she’d have lost her fear of tumbrels even’
– Bob Mitchum tells the youth, the paralytic –
‘it’s not cool, you shit-for-brains should shove it,
look for jobs, apprenticeships, education,
stand up for human rights and join the unions.’
Bob Mitchum smiles, unsuspecting, Mrs Thatcher’s
not yet ridden into town and shot his happy ending.
‘Three Hundred Spartans’ is another bravura monologue in brogue:
How can I express the unutterable echtness,
the dree, Three Hundred Spartans deid, and
me here on the brig on ma lane: think TS
Eliot, the hot gates, knee-deep, bitten, fought,
in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, eyeless
it’s all fear, a driven pack outside and in here
a crowd of no-risk-takers, hacking holes in me,
aye, me! – ma vest – the last bleeding Trojan.
[Note: dree is Scots for ‘endure’, ‘suffer’]
‘MBA’s’ is concise polemical poem, ear-catching in its assonantal harmonics, and is worth excerpting in full:
We used to read Biestek on non judgemental
relationships, Hollis and Pearlman,
Maslow on hierarchical needs,
the choice between fight or flight, Erikson,
self determination, client centred practice
and to what extent we are, or ought to be,
agents of social change or social control,
ho hum, that old one, reform or revolution,
and so it went on, ad infinitum.
When the state became this massive casino
our finest began taking MBA’s in accountancy
and brown-nosing. Now the banks have bust
we may have to concentrate once more on
some of the old stuff: saving, the price of mince.
‘Bob Purvis’ gives us another of Findlay’s candidly carved dried-up salvages:
I see Bob Purvis died, a lovely man.
He ran the old Family Service Unit,
Castlemilk, when I was a student there,
1972. He chain-smoked, clicked his teeth
and talked and talked, told endless stories,
how debt-collectors nailed folk to the floor,
’cos that’s still the drill round here, you know,
the syllables of ‘drill’ hung in the air
until the knee-caps froze, and then he clicked
his teeth once more and looked at you, and grinned.
‘Baby P’ is titled after 17-month year old child who suffered a terrible death through parental abuse and neglect, in 2007, and here Findlay universalises the case through the proverbial warning signs among a social worker’s infant clientele, in starkly lyrical, epitaphic lines:
your face smeared with chocolate
to hide the bruising
the wary look
the expressionless gaze
we are always told to look out for
‘Tragedy’ is a bitingly vitriolic poem, beautifully composed, as are so many in this volume, which justifiably impeaches the detached, peripheral professionals who orbit round the tragic cases of the social work profession, but saves its most bitter reproach for last:
Tragedy, nothing new, old as death, dogs all
our footsteps, open any newspaper,
the jokers of the press, the editorial
reaching out for metaphors like ‘human nature’
which does not exist, my friend, but dusted off,
may do to swell the note of righteous indignation,
while some poor clod, fifty of a caseload and half
way down the food chain, submits their resignation,
yet they’re the lucky ones – their nightmare’s over;
we who remain still have to read the Enquiry Report
written by some bourgeois, some big-shot lawyer,
who’s never taken kids away, cleaned up snot,
awaited outcomes or thrown themselves upon
the fetid breath, the so-called court of ‘public opinion’.
Equally reproachful is ‘We go to our posts in the morning’, this time towards the more holistically remote police. It begins in a grimly musical style:
We go to our posts in the morning,
our desk-tops, our cell-phones,
the daily rituals, the unwrapping of forms,
visits to clients, perhaps, or
more likely, the courts and the hearings,
then lunch, the anarchy of duty,
the wailings and gnashings, the witherings
and scorns of the inept and maladjusted
‘Pelt’ employs the metaphor of an Elk’s thick skin to evoke psychological self-protection and ‘compassion fatigue’ of decades in social work. ‘Mollycoddling’ catches the humour in the short shrift attitudes of the older working-class generation towards those whose circumstances are only marginally shabbier, but whom they insist on perceiving as profligate and morally inferior, a sub-species to their own subordinating social stations:
My mother, ninety-three,
blames me and my kind
for mollycoddling the feckless.
My mother was honed from birth
to almost death by work and soap
and water flung on rock-face
and hearth like pounding surf
on iron-black metallic range
before which she knelt and cursed
sweating and scrubbing and now
she sits like some old steam-engine
balefully eying the slope
the distance between herself
and the imitation fire-place
on which dust is settling.
It’s a candid and caustic depiction of (presumably) the poet’s mother, but in that serves us the truth as Findlay perceives it, warts and all; and it’s this uncompromising authenticity of human landscaping, of documenting social attitudes, that lifts Findlay’s poetry above the norm in terms of subject and treatment. ‘Desks’ depicts the social worker almost as a surrogate parent to his infant clients:
Social workers cover their desks with photographs
of kids they have in care
hang their vivid red blue and green paintings up
‘A Silver Grey One’ brings us down with a thump of grittier reality:
Clearing out my desk I came upon
an old claw-hammer, a keep-sake,
from a distraught mother, trying
to stop us taking her son away
because the Panel said so.
‘Alan Finlayson’ is an affectionate, E.A. Robinson-esque poem-portrait of a stout-hearted and idealistic lawyer, and in that, a seemingly untypical spoke in the cogs of a system that will more usually “pass-the-buck’/ back to social work’:
The great Alan Finlayson, Rumpole
of the Reporter’s Department, Lothian Region,
a brilliant wee barrel-voiced solicitor,
full of wit and humour and lawyer’s lore
yet deep-down serious about justice.
‘Sonnet Frae the Social Works’ is a startlingly rhythmic slice of balladic monologue, reminiscent at once of the variously styled Scots-dialect verse of Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, and, in its surreal and filmic aspects, Scots modernist Joseph MacLeod:
Wir clapt-oot tramp steamers
doonladen wi’ ores, subs frae the Indies,
electric bar fires, wir tubs fu’ o’ dreamers
but deep in wir holds thir’s urgent supplies,
unguents frae the Orient and the Azores,
the Isthmus o’ Panama, Orkney an’ Mars,
in th’Isthmus o’ Greenock wir knockin’ doon doors
wi’ breidplants an’ incense, baked beans an’ spam,
wir lambasted by trade winds, becalm’d, submarined
wir mendin’ propeller blades an’ doon-broke camshafts,
wir Hepburn and Bogart oan the African Queen
in wir semmits and vests cryin’ Come-oan, Get-aft!
Abin us the war cloods ominous form,
ablow us wir vessels puff intil the storm.
The collection concludes appropriately with the poet’s social working swan-song, ‘On Retiral from Public Service’:
I’ve left my Humphrey Bogart poster
looking down on six Scottish Colourists
hanging on my wall, and although
John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks
has gone, the bowler-hatted business-men
of René Magritte rain on, remorselessly,
from the heavens, and whoever pinned
Laurel & Hardy to my office door,
holding onto each other for comfort on
some precipitous ledge, with the legend
– Oh No! He’s Duty-Senior Again! –
Dancing With Big Eunice is a singular collection in terms of its unflinching depiction of some of the thorniest subjects poetry is likely to tackle. That such challenging themes should be rendered to such a genuinely engaging, even curiously heartening, read is a testament to Findlay’s sheer energy, brio, defiant sense of humour and, above all, fecund imagination. Allied to these rich qualities, his highly accomplished compositional talents, and his deeply cadent engagement with the sound and meaning of language, both English and Scots.
Poetry as social document seems to be undergoing something a revival of late, which can only be a good thing, particularly in this new age of austerity and a ‘back to basics’ welfare state. Poets such as Tom Kelly, Peter Street, David Kessel, Ellen Pethean, Andrew Jordan, Chris McCabe, Angela Readman, Victoria Bean, Helen Moore, Paul Summers, Clare Saponia, Niall McDevitt and many other notable poets have in recent times contributed to a realignment of poetry with its once common purpose as a medium of contemporary witness and recording of aspects to wider society, further afield than the ivied quads of academia or the dislocated ‘radical chic’ of close-knit metropolitan literati too frequently turning the medium in on itself, making poetry its own subject rather than a channel for more universal issues, and thus in turn, rendering it culturally peripheral, and, therefore often of only peripheral interest to the broader public. There has also been something of a subtle insurgence in poetic topic managing to penetrate the the poetry mainstream itself, with one example being David Swann’s 2010 volume based on his residence at HMP Nottingham, The Privilege of Rain (Waterloo Press), being shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2011.
This is the long-standing irony of much mainstream poetry of the past three decades: a gentrification of subject coupled with a jarring casualisation of language, the latter technique designed to compensate in the eyes of a projected lay reading public for the quotidian, even bourgeois, themes of the verse itself. Poets such as Findlay (and many others, through more socially responsive presses such as Luath, Smokestack, Flambard, Five Leaves, Hearing Eye, Waterloo, et al) are, in part, doing, is producing a riposting poetry: not anything so gauche as a ‘casualisation’ of subject and a ‘gentrification’ of language, but more a ‘socialization’ of subject combined with a more musical and metaphorical ‘recalibrating’ of language; in a sense, putting the ‘song and the throng’ back into poetry.
Like his numerous fellow exponents of contemporary social poetry, Findlay’s key strength in terms of subject is his hard-bitten empiricism, his experiential didacticism (which, as with the best socially educative poetry, never comes across as didacticism), allied with a piercingly empathetic sensibility, though one never afraid to be candid, bitingly satirical, even occasionally excoriating. This book is equivalent to a finely embroidered antimacassar tucked round a concrete chair arm: at once richly spun and softly woven and rough-edged, hard-hitting and thickly gritted. Alistair Findlay is a formidable Makar for the twenty-first century. This collection is highly recommended as essential reading for anyone with an appetite for poetry that actually awakens them to something less comfortable and so less forgettable than all-too-common supplemental stupors; for a grittier poetry taboo.
Alan Morrison © 2012