from ‘Self-Portrait as a White-Collar Worker, 1981-2016’
in Then and Now – Opus 1
Second in a Series of Three.
By W.D. JACKSON.
(Illustration by Alan Dixon)
THE POEMS AND prose in these three columns are from my work-in-progress, Then and Now, and consist of extracts from a sequence, Self-Portrait as a White-Collar Worker, 1981-2016, which forms part of the work and whose persona is presented – through his poetry and also translations – as developing over time as the events of his life affect him. The extracts are all taken from Then and Now – Opus 1, which is to be published by Shoestring Press in 2023.
The first volume of Then and Now to appear was Opus 3, in 2018.
THE PARK ON SUNDAY
“The poet and the dreamer are distinct…
The one pours out a balm upon the world,
The other vexes it.”
– These crossed-out lines of Keats’ keep running through
My troubled mind. The chestnuts overhead
Like forests painted on a Grecian urn
Have all the stillness that I need to learn:
“Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu…”
The parks where I grew up are not so quiet:
The sticks and stones flew thick again last night
And milk-bottles filled with petrol, fused with rags,
Bombed shops and local business. Shopping bags
Were stuffed with loot. Through smoke and fire-tongued light
An inner-city back-streets mob ran riot.
My birthplace. But not my daughter’s. She plays amid flowers
In peacefulness and sunshine. Their scented beds
Are calmly contemplated by the birds
While I, in search of wordlessness – not words –
Gaze at the park’s grass-greens, rose-reds,
For such self-regarding hours
As the law might take for ‘loitering’ in a city
Where if you’re young and haven’t got a job
They search you publicly, abuse and treat you
Like ‘vagrants’; where you’re scared they’d beat you
If you gave them a chance. School-children riot and rob
In a no-hope struggle for revenge or pity –
Let down and out by overcrowded schools –
Left brainwashed – bribed and bullied into thinking
That the aim of life is work, that work is done
For money, not love; life’s no more fun
Than learning, but you might get stinking
Rich if you ply the bribe-and-bully rules…
“How right the workers are,” George Orwell said,
“To put the belly before the soul
In point of time.” But even if he
Was right in London in 1943,
Now it’s the soul that’s starved. The police, the dole
Have goaded the neither ragged nor unfed
To an anxious and involuntary flailing
Whose highest motivation is the need
To be issued with regulation fetters
By those they prefer to regard as their betters
And with whom they share the easy creed
Which envies strength and blames the weak for failing!
– I stumble against a bench. My daughter plays
Far from the office or from book-shop shelves
Under the chestnut trees. But our favourite park
Appears less peaceful now – less light than dark,
Dark, dark. We blind ourselves, and maim ourselves,
By thinking too precisely on what pays,
On where we’re aimed and how we’re going,
Till our time-ridden world needs slowing, slowing.
Our movements lose the name of action
Our satisfactions satisfaction. –
But comfort’s still comfort, success success,
And since to be is to possess
The more we’ve got or get the less
We resent the usual strain and stress;
And poor is poor – humiliation,
Aggro, envy, bored frustration.
Forever struggling to make ends meet –
With your older kids in gangs on the street
And (learning to expect defeat)
Your youngest losing hope at school –
Who wouldn’t feel useless or a fool?
Fool! Though the undefeated fly
Beyond the park through the pathless sky
Or sing all Sunday afternoon
(And birdsong is never out of tune),
The word alone reminds me of
So much I’d prefer to be above
On this way of life I’m halfway through
But daily do or fail to do.
And failure’s one way to explain
The boredom, the fear, the stress and strain –
Heart trouble – impotence – and cancers.
But we’re too keen on one-word answers,
And even hard-and-fast succeeders,
Wine-bibbers, knowledgeable feeders,
Though steeped in the rites and joyless frolics
Of self-respecting workaholics,
Suffer from nameless discontentments –
Sleeplessness – ulcers – confused resentments…
– The Afghan prances proudly by
Which only last Sunday nipped my thigh.
The rosebeds’ soil is hard and browned
But my daughter brings a worm she’s found,
Which wriggles – as I suppose it must,
Once dropped there – in the sunny dust.
As a child I dreamed of how I’d like
To cycle away on a flying bike.
As if I could rise from my swivel chair,
Fling files and memos everywhere.
As if one could simply leave an office,
Or there were really better offers
Of lives elsewhere. But since there aren’t
Or since at any rate we can’t
As long as there’s no change – no let-up –
In the growth of this self-consuming set up
Whose masters are its slaves, we resign
Ourselves to falling in the line
Of duty, looting what we can
Since money is what makes the man –
Fiddling expenses, pinching paper,
In on any dodge or caper
That can be cut to fit the tune
We march or crawl to. Picaroon,
Who works to live, who lives to work?
We ought to admit we’re in the dark!
But instead we keep on plugging away
Ambitiously from here and now
To imagined deadlines, praise or pay
In an unreal future, ignoring how
The force and lures we all deploy
To obtain what we’ve been schooled to desire
With quiet legality destroy
Our souls in the great industrial fire:
Fire-blinded and severely burned
Yet ever assured of better health
We gloat that folly and weakness earned
The blue-collar millionaire his wealth;
But are lost in the back-streets. Recently I –
A stranger at home for years,
Informed by the media where and why
The mob ran riot – have felt goaded by fears
Of why and where my life is aimed,
Felt puzzled again, blinded, maimed.
– Words, words we need! The birds which contemplated
The flower-beds hop and scatter now, disturbed
By a loud-mouthed dog. Have I created –
Ever – a peace less curbed, less easily perturbed?
Even the park deceives in its wordless way:
Tomorrow’s another working day. All day.
– A riot of words! A monstrous, mechanical donkey
Has deafened and hoofed our wordless working world
So long it’s turned lop-sided and runs wonky!
If it’s not too late, if we haven’t been hurled
So far off course there’s no way back until
Our greeds and fears destroy themselves. Meanwhile,
It seems that more than one individual
Is sick and tired of insult, feels like spitting
It back in someone’s face – as petrol
Or poem. You might as well make shitting
Your aim in life as working for fear or money.
The policeman in the land of milk and honey
Is a measure of how we force our half-bled souls
To knuckle under; the rioters’ angry stealing
Of how we lure them. As for other goals
We’ve long been robbed of words: trained thought, trained feeling,
Cripple our minds. But man is not a beast,
And these street-running rioters cry to be released
From what they cannot think of as oppression
And therefore half-mistake for unemployment
And racist rozzers. A – Keatsian – verbal obsession
With art’s unhurried, sure, unending enjoyment
Of seeing the world through freely contemplating
Its mirrored forms would be worth elucidating –
Though Keats himself might stutter – in a place
Where even I, in anger and disgust,
Once smashed a teacher’s window. By the grace
Of Sunday School the old gradgrind never sussed
That it was me – the prefect at the front
Who conned his lessons. An isolated stunt,
Which reminds me of the bomb-site where we’d played
At cops-and-robbers with stolen fire as a base
To jump through: daring it, flushed and afraid
We’d be caught and punished. Now, as on Guy Fawkes’ Days,
The fires are bigger. But still of the same sort.
If only we could steal back words, steal thought,
Or liberate thought in a riot of words
For each to defend himself as best he can
Against the strait-laced bureaucratic turds
Which’d bed men down in a travesty of man –
A thoughtless, loveless, bribed, tired, bullied brute
In an overall, a uniform, or suit!
“Ten red ones,” my daughter says. At the age of two,
As she learns to see more clearly how things are
She learns to name them. The roses are “red”, not “blue”.
But the imagination rarely gets that far!
Perceiving and performing what’s been taught us,
We behave like mobs of world- and word-distorters.
Yet every child sees Paradise before
It’s kicked in the head by that mad donkey. Later,
“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” is a saw
Meaningless to most of us. But its creator
Knew it might change the world. And if “might” ’s not much,
Suffer the little children, for of such
Is faith, hope, love. Like lilies of the field
The children take no thought for the things of the morrow.
But wounds in the mind are only slowly healed
And, wounded, a thing of beauty’s dark with sorrow.
My daughter brings a broken rose she’s found.
But the chestnuts’ roots grope deep in the dark ground.
These crossed-out lines of Keats: The epigraph is from a passage in The Fall of Hyperion (Canto I, ll.187-210) which, although it is included in most modern editions, Keats seems to have cancelled. This cancellation may well have reflected some temporary indecision on the ailing Keats’s part as to whether poetry is of any value or use whatever in the modern world: is it not all mere “dreaming”, as the passage preceding the cancellation seems to imply…?
As the law might take for ‘loitering’: The notorious ‘sus’ law allowed the police to stop, search and even arrest “‘suspected persons’ and ‘reputed thieves’ who ‘frequent and loiter’ in certain public places with intent to commit an arrestable offence” (quoted in OED). The law (based on the Vagrancy Act of 1824) was increasingly used – and resented – in the 1970s in Britain’s inner cities (for example, almost 4,000 people were stopped and searched, and 180 of them arrested, on Merseyside alone between January and July 1981) and was a major cause of rioting in Bristol, Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere at the time. In August 1981 the law was repealed.
“How right the workers are, etc.”: Slightly adapted from the concluding section of George Orwell’s essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War (1943), written while he was living in London and working for the BBC. Orwell’s view that there could be as good as no spiritual life without an “indispensable minimum” of material well-being (“enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day [!], clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done”) is still true of most people – although his knowledge of the working class and its supposed “decency” remained that of an outside observer. If it was true up to a point that “behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about the ‘materialism’ of the working class lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them”, the new white-collar ‘working class’ which, amid widespread affluence, now dominates the Western world is quite clearly as ‘materialistic’ and probably more so. As Joseph Brodsky, with his first-hand experience of both Communism and capitalism, might have written, materialism (or greed) of this sort appears to be less a “political problem” than “a human problem, a problem of our species, and thus of a lingering nature” (‘Letter to a President’ in On Grief and Reason). In the same open letter, addressed to Vaclav Havel in 1993, Brodsky wrote: “Why don’t we simply start by admitting that an extraordinary anthropological backslide has taken place in our world in this century, regardless of who or what triggered it? That it involved masses acting in their self-interest and, in the process of doing so, reducing their common denominator to the moral minimum? And that the masses’ self-interest – stability of life and its standards, similarly reduced – has been attained at the expense of other masses, albeit numerically inferior?”
But its creator / Knew it might save the world: Cp. Brodsky: “Now, the purpose of evolution is the survival neither of the fittest nor of the defeatist… The purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty, which survives it all and generates truth simply by being a fusion of the mental and the sensual” (‘An Immodest Proposal’ in On Grief and Reason). On the other hand, “There are few cures for hereditary disorders (undetectable, perhaps, in an individual, but striking in a crowd), and what I’m suggesting here is not one of them… The fact that we are alive does not mean that we are not sick” (ibid).
W.D. JACKSON’s five books and two pamphlets are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work. His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018), was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019. A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’). Shoestring has published a new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon). The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.
ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s. Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013. An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.