Linton Kwesi Johnson honoured

Father of dub poetry wins 2012 Golden PEN Award

The father of dub poetry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, has won the 2012 Golden PEN Award, awarded annually to an accomplished writer, resident in Britain, whose work has had “a profound impact on readers, and who is held in high regard by fellow writers and the literary community”. Previous recipients have included Salman Rushdie, Harold Pinter and Margaret Drabble.

Speaking to the Independent over the weekend, the 60-year-old poet and musician noted his shock upon hearing the news. “I’m not exactly in the mainstream of the British literary scene; I’m nearer the periphery,” he said, going on to explain that he hasn’t, in fact, written a line of poetry in years. “If a poem happens to come to me, I write it. But I am not bothered. If I never write another poem, so be it.”

Johnson has written profoundly on civic unrest, race and police brutality in Britain. His poetry collection, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, was published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and his albums – notably Dread Beat an’ Blood (1978), Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980) and Making History (1983) – which blend reggae, toasting and rhythmic, haunting spoken word, did so much to bring the language, culture and concerns of British Afro-Caribbeans to cultural prominence, particularly in times of difficulty.

“Di Great Insohreckshan” was written in response to the 1981 Brixton riots, at a time when The Spectator claimed Johnson's phonetic rendering of English-Jamaican patois “wreaked havoc in schools and helped create a generation of rioters and illiterates”. Another powerful poem, “Sonny’s Lettah”, is spoken from the perspective of a young Jamaican, writing to his mother from Brixton jail, after his brother is randomly apprehended by police: “Jim start to wriggle / di police start to giggle…”

Johnson sees poetry and music as vehicles for liberation, available to all, something he explained in an interview before performing at the Festival des Libération in France last year (see below). Perhaps the timing of the award, so recently after PEN’s Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot was published, hopes to offer a reminder of what poetry and music have done for the oppressed throughout history.

Below are some choice performances by Johnson and the Dub Band, live and on the Old Grey Whistle Test. To read a short interview with Johnson, published in the NS in 2008, click here.

Linton Kwesi Johnson. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder