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A close reading of Lord Alan Sugar’s poem about Jeremy Corbyn

Some practical criticism.

Jeremy Corbyn, a bit of a scruff

Asked what he could do to come over less rough

His fashion advisers worked on a new look

And a fifty quid Matalan suit’s all it took

This is an interesting place to begin. The poem is clearly intended to be a satirical broadside against a Labour leader that Lord Sugar, who quit the party in May 2015 over its drift to the left, believes to be both anti-business and anti-Semitic.

But the line “a bit of a scruff” sounds almost affectionate – Sugar may, inadvertently, have highlighted the unpolished quality that some voters find so compelling about Corbyn.

What’s more, while there are legitimate criticisms of the Labour leader, “his suit looks cheap” is really not one of them. And when a wealthy businessman mocks a politician for the cheapness of his suits, it feels a lot like mocking people who have less money than he does. Already, our sympathy is against the narrator.

Worse is to come.

Jeremy Corbyn, a stud of a man

A playboy was he with his lover Diane

She’d get into bed wearing only her blusher

And lie back with Jezza just thinking of Russia

This feels like an allusion to the classic Guido Fawkes tweet, in which he posted a picture of himself alone in bed with a cardboard cut-out of Diane Abbott – apparently under the impression that this made her look bad.

Many things about this stanza do not make sense. Why the poet should have interest in, let alone knowledge of, the Labour leader’s sexual prowess. Why he believes discussion of a 30 year old relationship between two politicians should have any place in public life. Why someone’s views on international relations, or any other policy issue for that matter, would drive what they think about in bed (“just thinking of Russia”). Does Sugar spend moments of carnality fantasising about tax rates?

At any rate: this is a deeply unpleasant and misogynistic stanza. Once again, our unreliable narrator has attempted to attack Jeremy Corbyn, but has, in the process, inadvertantly told us more about himself.

(Incidentally, the use of the word “just” is a sign that the line was running short, while the words “was” and “he” have clearly been reversed to maintain rhythm – so this seems like a good moment to talk about metre.

This poem has between 10 and 12 syllables a line, and more often than not they seem to come in groups of three. The problem is that the stress is sometimes at the beginning of those three – a dactyl – and sometimes at the end - an anapaest.

And so, I’m having some difficulty identifying what metre this poem is meant to be written in. But since I spent many hours between the ages of 13 and 21 trying to get to grips with poetic metre, and since this is the first and presumably last time I will have the chance to put this learning to professional use, I’ll be damned if I’m going to write about a poem without even attempting to address this stuff.

Anyway.)

Jeremy Corbyn, on Royals not keen

You won’t find him singing to God Save The Queen

No Cenotaph bowing for this bitter man

If elected he’d call for a monarchy ban

Some interesting capitalisation going on here: “Royals”, “Cenotaph”. The message is that Sugar, unlike Corbyn, has the proper respect.

The first two lines of this stanza are, to be fair, accurate: Corbyn is not a royalist, and he doesn’t like singing the national anthem. Fair comment.

But then things go off the rails. What evidence is there that he’s “bitter”? Many British people have republican sympathies – it’s a minority position, but not a freakishly unusual one. Why would this correlate with bitterness? As for the “monarchy ban”, Corbyn made clear during last year’s election campaign that, whatever his own views, any government he led would not attempt any such radical review of the British constitution.

I’m also not convinced that “ban” is the right verb for what you do with monarchies – “Overthrow”? “Remove”? But, to be fair, those wouldn’t rhyme.

Jeremy Corbyn, says many a critic

Is a dangerous fool who is anti-Semitic

He often says “I’m not a Jew-hating man”

“I’m just a big Hamas and Hezbollah fan”

This is, one suspects, what first led the poet to put pen to paper. The last few weeks have seen much discussion of Corbyn’s views of and reputation within the Jewish community. Lord Sugar, of Jewish heritage himself, has as personal a stake in this debate as anyone.

I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of that debate: this isn’t the place, and I’m just too tired. But I will make two observations.

1) The last line of this stanza breaks metre more jarringly than any other line of the poem. This could be a clever way of communicating Sugar’s genuine rage on this issue. Or it could be because it’s completely impossible to say the words “Hamas and Hezbollah” in dactyls (and/or anapaests).

2) Even though the result would be a clusterfuck for all concerned, I now really want the Labour party to release a statement from Corbyn headed, “I’m not a Jew-hating man”.

Only two stanzas left. Come on, we can do this.

Jeremy Corbyn, an Arsenal man

Supporting the team with his Islington clan

He cheers the left winger when he goes along

And ‘Come on you Reds’ is his favourite song

This is weak sauce, after all that’s gone before. It lacks the ironic undercutting of the first two stanzas or the genuine rage of the fourth. All it tells us is that Corbyn is a left-wing politician who supports a football team that plays in red. That’s it. (Alan Sugar, incidentally, supports Spurs.)

It’s not bad – sorry, I’ll rephrase: it’s not any worse than the rest of the poem. But Sugar really should have moved it up the running order. At this point, a truly great work would be building to a conclusion, not fizzling out.

Jeremy Corbyn, a yesterday man

The worst Labour leader since records began

Though his party is coughing and spluttering and dying

Old Jeremy Corbyn’s red flag is still flying

London Underground used to have a series of posters which used poems to teach people about tube etiquette: move down the carriage, give up your seat to the old and infirm, and so on.

Those posters really bugged me – because not only did the poems never quite scan properly, they were also really easy to fix. I’d stare at them, mentally rewriting them so they communicated exactly the same message without jarring extra syllables.

This stanza has the same problem. There’s no such thing as “a yesterday man”: there’s a phrase which makes the same point and this isn’t it. And that third line has far, far too many syllables.

I make no comment on the contents, but from a purely metric standpoint, here’s what it should be:

Jeremy Corbyn is yesterday’s man

The worst party leader since records began

Though Labour is coughing and splutters and dies

Old Jeremy Corbyn’s red flag still flies.

Oh hang on, I’m missing a syllable.

Hmm. This poetry lark’s harder than it looks.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge