Drawing on experience: poetry and motion

Simon Armitage and co. at King's Place.

How easy is it to combine poetry and illustration into a cohesive live performance? The charity Poet in the City answered this question at an enormously successful event last night that showed how fertile communication between words and pictures can be.

In an imaginative format, three poets and three illustrators took to the stage two at a time, and while the authors read their poems, visual counterparts to the words were drawn live by the illustrators, whose pens scurried across pages that were projected onto a huge screen. "Like someone doing 'rabbit ears' behind you in a photo," as Simon Armitage noted afterwards.

The poet and performance artist Heather Phillipson's introspective and humorous family saga poems were flamboyantly accompanied by the inkwell and nib of the illustrator Nick Hayes. Man-eating great white sharks vied with mashed potato and recalcitrant husbands for a place at the illusory table, Phillipson's deadpan delivery underscored by Hayes's rapid sketching.

Vertical blinds, Colette Bryce's poem about bipolarism was artfully visualised by Philippa Johnson as strips of masking tape were pulled off one surface to reveal another, a visual metaphor that when combined with the sounds of the peeling tape, leant an appropriately peculiar atmosphere to the piece.

Simon Armitage was joined by Chris Riddell, the Observer's political cartoonist.

"If you had asked me before, whether I thought the format could work, I would have said 'no'," Armitage said later, "but I wanted to do it because it was so different from a lot of readings I do, and I thought it could be a good performance."

Reading some of his more wry poetry, Armitage worked with Riddell to produce a drily funny series of pieces. The English Astronaut, a poem considering the comparatively unglamorous spacemen of Britain, was visualised by Riddell in a glib cartoon as a hammy bald man in a space suit and worked particularly well:

I followed him in his Honda Accord to a Little
Chef on the A1, took the table opposite, watched
him order the all-day breakfast and a pot of tea.

"With illustration, there's the risk of divesting a poem of its meaning," Armitage says when asked whether he feels illustration can always enhance poetry. "But the pictures in books like Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows always stay with you."

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition