I was diligently following a recipe called “How to make the perfect roast potatoes” Thinking, if I can achieve perfection Here in my kitchen That would be really quite major Offsetting all thoughts of career failure.
Like – alright, Macron You might have become President of France At the age of 39 And live in the elysee palace Rather than a 3 bed terrace But have you knocked out perfect roast potatoes Not just exceptional Not just blinding Perfect.
No. No, you haven’t.
So clear in my superiority I knuckled down and followed the recipe Par boiling to the second, Interspersing garlic among the King Edwards and as I sat there oven side, like a midwife I thought to myself I’m alright.
Do you remember when everything was good
those good times, when the good things happened
what were you, six, nine, eleven, fifteen
that age, when only the fun things mattered
like skateboard tricks and scootering
and decisions never got harder than
how many scoops and what type of ice cream
Do you remember, tv was good back then
the good guys were good looking and felt like your friends
friends that were funny, and caring too
and in the movies things exploded but your hero made it through
do you remember when everyone used to make it through?
wouldn’t you like everyone you love to just make it through?
No worries, that’s what I’m standing for
a good future where worries are no more
adults encouraged to play video games
not new ones, the old ones, like we used to play.
Do you know what else I would like to do?
Bring back those bands which spoke to you
when you were that age when music still spoke to you
If that is the safe space you want to return to
there is one little thing you have got to do
one morning, on a Thursday in May
I’ll drop off dvds and your favourite food
you gather your mates and play all day
and keep them away from the voting booth
the next day, there will be a new improved truth
the news will all be good news
or maybe just cartoons
yes, instead of news we’ll just have the funnies
and I promise you this
my friends and I will take care of business
and for you, my friend, there will be no worries
Yellow daffodil, how uninspired you are
year in, year out
it’s always the same with you, isn’t it?
Always the same gaudy yellow
a colour once bright and joyful
made drab by its predictability
One would think, wouldn’t one
that one could shake things up a bit
a bit of black piping
a few white spots, perhaps
new season is always old season with you
People might say, ‘So nice to see the daffs back again!
I might write a poem about them!’
They would be lying, yellow daffodil
they would be humouring you, with English politeness.
Behind your back they are saying terrible things
terrible, nasty things
comparing you unfavourably to the geranium
lower even than nettles, with their supposed life-giving properties
What do you give, yellow daffodil?
What do you give, apart from a gentle reminder of springtime past
a splash of colour where previously there was none
a glint of sun-like warmth, hinting at the summer to come?
In fact, yellow daffodil, forget we had this conversation.
Carry on, as you always have done.
On your way out, could you leave the door open,
and send the chrysanthemum in?
I need a few choice words with him.
Yesterday, I was walking through the car park
on my way to Morrisons when I said to myself
“I think I’d rather go bowling instead. I’ll go bowling
and eat fries out of one of those little paper bags,
and Coke from a Coke bottle, drinking it
without the bottle touching my lips,
like in the adverts.”
I go bowling and play a two-player game against myself.
It’s an interesting battle. Player one has a lovely technique,
spinning his medium-weight ball into the pack of pins
accurately but without great force.
Player two is the fans’ favourite. A showman.
They love the way he looks up and says a not-quite-silent prayer
before heaving the ball down the lane, brutishly,
fist-pumping in his opponent’s direction.
Afterwards, I go to the Counting House for a pint
and read a story in the Mercury
about a Mr Jez Wilkinson of Kibworth Harcourt
and his prize-winning courgette.
Later, I indulge in some light graffiti,
drawing a magic mushroom smoking a spliff
on the rear wall of the pub, before
making my way to Morrisons.
“I’m big into integrity,” said the poet Tshaka Campbell. “I’m not going to write about something like an abortion from a woman’s perspective because there is no way I could know what that is like.
“I don’t like poets who write a break-up poem and you say, ‘have you ever broken up with someone?’ and they say, ‘no!'”
Tshaka shrugged, and smiled, as if to say, “how ridiculous is that – to even think to do something like that?” And many of the crowd at Bang Said The Gun, a popular spoken word night in south London, laughed with him.
I didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh because I was too busy wondering exactly how dangerous a joke like that is. He was effectively saying, in a flippant, light-hearted way, that if you haven’t directly experienced it, don’t write about it.
Which set me thinking: would he have told Hubert Selby Jnr to not write the rape scene in Last Exit to Brooklyn because he was not rape victim nor rapist? Would he have told Patricia Highsmith not to write The Talented Mr Ripley because she had no direct experience of murder? Would he have stopped Shakespeare from writing anything but the occasional poem about his early years in Stratford-upon-Avon?
I suspect not, because he would see that these were serious writers and would do what he could to encourage them. So I do not believe that he meant this joke to be taken as a general truth.
However, even if we look at the specific example he sets – that of the poet writing a break-up poem without having experienced a break-up – we can see that even this is wrong. For example, we know that Morrissey was famously celibate and had no boyfriends or girlfriends during his songwriting heyday in the 1980s.
That didn’t stop him writing one of the greatest love songs of all time, There is a Light That Never Goes Out. He was able to write this song, not because of a love that he had directly experienced, but because of his unique sensitivity to the human condition.
To give Tshaka the benefit of the doubt, he might have meant that if a writer writes about a difficult subject – a break-up; an abortion – and does not fully think through the subject, then poor quality writing is almost certainly the result. But that could equally be the case whether someone has experienced something or not – anyone who has been to a few open mic nights knows that.
Tshaka Campbell has been writing poetry for 20 years. The crowd was full of people there to see him, the headline act. Many were no doubt writers or aspiring writers, likely to be influenced by this charismatic performer and therefore take his ill-judged joke seriously.
I would be really sad if an aspiring writer came away from that night and decided to steer clear from daring, imaginative work, and write only from their own experience, because they believed it more artistically credible to do so.
The present glut of poets, and Campbell is not one of them, who seem to only write in the first person, suggests that the ‘only write from your own experience’ philosophy has its adherents. What I would like to see is more poets bravely experimenting with different styles and techniques – developing characters, writing from unusual perspectives, using satire and irony – before hitting upon a style which suits them.
As the songwriter Conor O’Brien, from the band Villagers, said in a recent interview:
“It was Dylan who made me realise that you could just lose your mind a little bit, and sometimes when you’re adventurous and you have that spirit in you something quite fundamental comes out.”
Which seems like a much better piece of advice for a writer than telling them what is off limits.
So perhaps Tshaka Campbell should impose a small limitation upon himself: stick to performing his often brilliant poetry, and leave the jokes to the comedians.
Don’t call him that
wears cuff-links and tie-clips
runs the tightest of tight ships
is not having any
‘this story can’t be written the way that I imagined it’
a local newspaper editor as he lives and breathes
if you sliced Mike Beard open
he would bleed the finest newsprint ink
the kind reserved only for front page leads
newspaper executives are impressed by his boundless
enthusiasm for sacking staff and driving down expenses
just as hairdressers are by his insistence
that he still has need of their services
hates the needless use of long words and phrases.
Why, he asks, with an uncomprehending shake of the head,
would a reporter use the word dictatorial,
when they could use decisive
multicultural, when they could use foreign
or person affected by Down’s Syndrome
when they could simply say mong?
Like a particularly excitable pyromaniac
Mike Beard is delighted every time he hears
reports of arson. He marches into the heart
of the newsroom and demands to know who
will be covering. The reporters, all of a sudden,
become obsessed with the carpet; apart,
on this occasion, from me. Without the slightest
awareness of personal space he gets up in my face
and demands to know the questions I’ll be asking.
Before I have a chance to answer, he’s reeling
off questions like an insane hostage-taker
makes demands. He wants to know the precise
height of the flames, the top temperature of the blaze,
the true nature and scale of the victim family’s pain.
While I frantically make notes I know his main interest is not in me accurately
reporting this petty tragedy, but in ensuring
every success I have looks like I have failed.
And I wish, instead of smiling compliantly,
I had the guts to say
I can feel the great, frightening vacuity
of your existence. In every blundering
assertion of your authority, lies a desperate,
haunted fear of redundancy. That day which you
picture so clearly, when you are forced out
of your high-backed black leather editor’s chair,
pack up your framed motivational quote
by Steve Redgrave, hand back the keys to your
executive saloon, so you have to take a cab back
to your four-bedroom home in Cooden
in which you will live out your days, on your own,
sitting on your leather recliner, incandescent
with rage at the shoddy quality of TV journalism,
which you would never, have never put up with
before switching off, to take solace in Bruce
Springsteen’s tales of hardbitten working men,
blubbing like a child as you listen to Born To Run’s
saxophone solo, wishing that you’d had, just once,
a pretty young secretary you could fuck.
I’ve just been treble-kissed by a girl in a work email
she’s asking me to help her review some text
but could it be that she loves me, as this email,
with its treble-kiss plus smiley face sign-off suggests?
Or does she, in her beautiful, youthful folly
treble-kiss everyone, flippantly, thoughtlessly
thereby degrading the entire email kiss system
not caring what colleagues take it to mean?
Or does she operate a precise kiss system
based on inverse proportion, meaning the three
is one and one is three, rendering this treble
as meaningless as a peck on the cheek?
Or is it a habit she developed after
falling in love with the XXX movies, making
these kisses not kisses at all but a simple,
yet knowing, nod to the great Vin Diesel?
No, that’s unlikely.
Perhaps she does genuinely fancy me
but is asking me to complete this task
to assess whether I have the makings
of an obedient and subservient boyfriend
She’s probably one of those women who moves in
within days of your first date, then stops you
having evenings with your mates because you’re
saving for a wedding you haven’t even proposed for
Almost certainly she’s the kind of nightmare girl who
watches every calorie, bans you from eating carbs,
then cries if you so much as cast a lustful
glance at a cheese and onion pasty
I look at the email with disgust. I complete
the task in good time, and when I send it back,
sign the email with no smiley face, and only
a single kiss, to show how much I hate her.
Walking away from the Western Cemetery,
An exposed hill-top near the M25
Where the north London Jews choose to bury
their dead, I saw a bus stop poster of
a film called The Iron Lady with a picture
of my grandma on it. It was disconcerting
seeing her staring back at me, unsmilingly
looking me square in the eye, just an hour
after I’d watched the rabbi and his burly
assistant lower her body into the ground.
As I got closer to the poster I could see
it was Meryl Streep made-up as Margaret Thatcher,
but still the likeness to my Grandma
held true, sharing as she did the bouffant
hairdo, skin untouched by sun and the
‘lady is not for turning’ attitude
of the famous scourge of union men.
I’m taken back to when I was eight,
and my sister’s ten. We’re staying over
at grandma and grandad’s for the weekend.
We’re sat down at the dining table, staring
at fine-art place mats, with silver cutlery
set out with such precision it would satisfy
the most pernickety Swiss. Grandad sits
down, looking like an aged cat but not
quite as awake. Grandma brings in the soup,
the chicken soup, the Jewish chicken soup
which is the best thing on earth but also
a subtle way of saying : whoever
your father is, you’ll always be a Jew.
The conversational sparring starts:
Grandma asks us what we think about
Neil Kinnock’s chances of being elected.
My sister trots out the playground line that
“he’s gotta be better than that dreaded milk-snatcher.”
Grandma tells her that she should pronounce
her middle t’s better. Grandad agrees.
I say the soup is wonderful. Grandad agrees.
Grandma then asks us if we like the opera.
My sister says she prefers Madonna.
I say I’d love to hear some just as soon as
we’ve finished this marvellous dinner.
My sister kicks me hard on the shin.
At the end of the weekend, mum and dad
Pick us up in our brown Ford Cortina.
I stay quiet while my sister unleashes
a tirade against Grandma: she denounces
the demands placed upon her to be better spoken,
better dressed, more grown-up, less like herself,
and mum calmly says, “Whatever she did to you
It’s not half of what she put me through.”
And you can tell by her tone that it’s true.
Fifteen years later, I’m at the Royal
Opera House with grandma. She’s frail
And needs my arm to get to the seat
She got cheap with her disabled pass.
The opera begins: I understand little but
can see there are a lot of Russians on stage
singing at each other, and killing each other
and grandma, at a glance, seems pleased.
During one particularly savage scene
I give her hand a squeeze, and she squeezes too.
When the actors who’ve not yet been slain
take a break she unwraps fishcake sandwiches
which we share. The rye bread and fried salmon
Taste like the old country she clings to,
but I’ve never known. They taste, maybe,
like a token of love from a woman who
could sometimes be mistaken for the Iron Lady.