The poetry of austerity

A response to the cuts in verse.

Art, relatively speaking, is slow. Representation needs time to mirror real events, and little work has emerged so far in reaction to the coalition government's austerity programme since it took power last June. There was the so-so Theatre Uncut initiative earlier this year, but over the last couple of months another project has emerged out of the unlikely world of innovative poetry to deal with the cuts.

Poet Sam Riviere, winner in 2007 of an Eric Gregory Award and author of a pamphlet in the Faber New Poets series published last year, has been working on a web-published sequence of poems entitled "81 Austerities". It consists of 9 sets of 9 poems each, published on a weekly basis from 12 May. In Riviere's words, "The brief is to publish a passive/aggressive response to the 'austerity measures' implemented by the Coalition government in the UK in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. The collection aims to apply such 'cuts' to poetry itself, experiencing this deprivation primarily on the levels of sentiment, structure, and subject matter."

Riviere trained at the Norwich School of Art and Design, and the conceptual, process-oriented character of art education leaves its mark in the work. Each section incorporates photographic materials, and includes a number of visual poems and the use of innovative typography; the Tumblr version includes a number of video-poems assembled from scavenged footage, photographs and collages. The sequence was written systematically, following 8 different and intertwining themes. The overall tone takes its cues from the drollery and deadpan neutrality of internet discourse, the new-bureaucratic language of advertising and PR, the monologues of the bored and perpetually dissatisfied. It follows on from the high-velocity, obscurely logical language of Tom Raworth, the Language poets and the British poets who followed in their wake.

In Riviere's poetry, austerity figures as a revocation of generosity, a violence done to form, a grain to the surface of language that resists easy comprehension. As he writes in "Cuts":

very soon the things we cherish most
will likely be taken from us the wine
from our cellars our silk gowns and opium
but tell me what do you expect Chung Ling Soo
much ridiculed conjurer of the court and last
of the dynasty of brooms to do about it?

The poems, when written as monologues, present difficulties for the usual forms of biographical or dramatic reading. They denaturalise and call attention to, the language that they hoover up from the wider culture - an important gesture when the cuts are justified by the government and media by the neutering and abuse of language into doublespeak. The publishing strategy of "81 Austerities" - publication for free online, although a number of the poems have appeared also in literary journals - presents an obverse to the subject matter: a potlatch, an assurance, when everything is being cut, that some activities free of the suffocating logic of exchange are still possible.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution