The North-South Divide

I wrote this poem inspired by accents and dialect in Britain and how we make value judgements on the way people talk. I was raised in Northampton but I’ve been told I speak with an accentless accent, known as The Queen’s English (very unNorthamptonian).

We make judgements on people’s education based on how they talk and this poem comes from my many lessons on accents and dialects in my English Language classes at A-Level and Creative Writing degree.

This is also deeply inspired from”Mr Oxford Don” by John Agard and “The Battle of the Library” by Birmingham poet Jasmine Gardosi. Both are excellent works that deserve a watch.


The well-spoken Englishman says –

“East Londoners: prisoners of the gutter, like Oliver Twist condemned for every syllable he utters. Elitists say they deserve to be killed for the remorseless assault on the linguistic guild.”

However, there is nothing wrong with having a regional accent. Posh people hide behind their dictionaries but wasn’t Samuel Johnson from Lichfield, Staffordshire?

Posh people speak well. See they love Oxford and Cambridge. That means rowing and cricket and to like this you must use proper vowels and consonants, enunciated with clarity. They’d prefer to see words laid like bricks, side by side not zig-zagging like the gabbles of Merseyside –

Photographer: Jade Masri

a dialect that claims some space but not too much. Not like the drawls of Glasgow. Then there’s Yorkshire – Catherine Earnshaw, and Heathcliff against the stiff upper lip. Then there’s Derbyshire, and the topsy-turvy free-flowing chatter of Cornwall way down south. Not Ross Poldark, but first-season Demelza, along with du Maurier’s Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel

Shouldn’t we be taking lesson in understanding as many people as we can, not looking down our noses at northern clans, like they’re heathens and their gums are bleedin’ from their teethin’. Let them teethe. Let their voices breathe, and vibrate across landscapes.

Where I went to school, students were taught to speak proper. Properly. What does that mean? The Queen’s English you see. RP. Received Pronunciation where a foot wrong is the ultimate humiliation, English tears run. In America, they don’t care about their assault on the English tongue!

But just when the Oxford Don thinks he’s safe, he catches sight of a Northamptonian. Proper Norfampton. Free of em with a glass o’ wa’er. Now there’s an elephant in the room. I think you mean three and there’s a T in water; you’re crushing this language with pestle and mortar

Photographer: George Hiles

into fine threads like the cotton in Bristol and Manchester. To this Oxford fellow, the further north you go the worse it flows: Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and – then Scotland. Oh lord, he’s come down in rash ready to fit the entire North in an iron cast.

Up and down we go; and when Britain gives you Wales, you say Gavin & Stacey, sheep and Tom Jones. And when life gives you Toms, it’s time to use your voice, revving like a Spitfire engine – a necessity in every good RP speakers’ composition “and the Welsh have made a mess of English. Some of them even speak WELSH. What are they saying? One language… I don’t know what is. Tis absurd. That’s what it is” says the Oxford don.

They tear apart the Englishman with their words in Roman formation and then tortoise across borders. A textbook manoeuvre. And soon the Irish have joined the fray, sharing common cause with the Welsh. They’re not fans of the English. God knows why.

Their ranks break. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish have a party – from James Joyce to Saoirse Ronan, the Oxford don begins to cry.

Photographer: Patrick Fore

The way Mr Oxford tries to own the page. Maybe those Englishmen give the English a bad name. Language, it turns out, is for everyone and can be mobilised by poets like John Agard and John Dunne – from Belfast to London – from Cardiff to Glasgow – from Falmouth to Suffolk. And regional accents know how to make words flow like poetry.

The situation has gone to the dogs as the Oxford Don goes to town on the regions. You mean Oxford dons like J.R.R Tolkien who grew up in Birmingham? Brummies! Brummies! Home to great creatives like Julie Walters and Lenny Henry, also many stories about the gentry.

The Regionals ride to war to fight against these language elitist. To not do so would be defeatist. Now I think this is England at its worst, as their tongues draw lines between performance poetry and verse.

A conglomerate of mouth muscles wagging – all shuffling; hustling verbs, nouns and round sounds like the oooo in who and O in got. Now it’s the children from North and the South – words now dog-eared and paper cut, two thirds shorter than they should be.

Photographer: Annie Spratt

Don’t you see, it was a lost cause from the start? Just let them stand in their three-dimensional voices, speaking with their hearts. Their drawls and gabbles. Their nuances and sociolects that shout from the ground. That hound and change into hybrid languages. Let kids be kids. As long as they’re respectful, let them talk how they please.

The letters conjoin. The words morph. Their voices curl and crawl on their hands and knees, free of labels. They learn  for themselves and it seems that language is a wild beast that needs to live its own life. Creating a unique identity one generation at a time.

Bunce Island, 1670

I wrote this poem inspired from seeing David Olusoga’s coverage of Sierra Leone’s Buncle Island in his book and documentary series Black and British: A Forgotten History. The video below will explain more.


The screams of Bunce Island
have finally found their form
and it’s barely a whisper –
a whimper on the forest floor –

they treat them like dogs.
Though they’re good enough
to rape. Cremating chastity
in the shack that sits over there.

It’s a game of cat and mouse –
the mansion men are howler monkeys,
The Rape House’s wooden walls
like a box to bury them in –

Photographer: Nomao Saeki

out in the yard the chains crawl,
jingling. Master’s mouth salivating,
ribs throbbing. It’s July, but they wouldn’t
know that based on the sky’s high fever –

parched animals looking like
master’s wrath, Britannia
flying flags like tablecloth in
the sight of the British imagination.

A slave was killed today. They didn’t
know her name. Her scream slowed
to a boil in the face of king and country,
skin flapping like the tail of a dinner jacket –

for a moment, they thought it might never
come to an end. But it does, in heavy hands
on the top of heavy heads and soon
she is half the woman she was.

What a horrid sight, her body
wrapped like a carcass ready
to be submerged – same as the
slaves that jumped from ships.

Photographer: Katherine McCormack

The rain falls from the sky
like dust on a shelf. And
they do, as many have,
catch droplets in their mouths

until their teeth,
tongues and throats
turn black.

Mother Ireland (After “The Troubles”)

I’ve written this poem (preemptively) for International Women’s Day on March 8 for which I’m going to be reading at an event next week.  I realised I don’t have many gender-related poetry so I put this one together.

It’s inspired from a very good nonfiction book called Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland – The Women’s War (1984) by Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean.

It’s a book about a period in Irish history called “The Troubles”, also known as the “Northern Ireland Conflict.” Only the Rivers Run Free is written from the point of view of the women on the street-level.

Every wondered what it would be like to see the Vietnam War from the point of view of the civilians? This book takes the reader and puts you in the shoes of those who lived it.

I’m not a historian. The following poem is simply many thoughts and feelings I had when reading the book. Interpret it as you will.


I want to write a poem for
the women of Northern Ireland
who had their houses broken into by the English
before taking their kids to school –
who hacked and cursed,
and Shannon from Belfast who has
strong opinions about colonial rule,
says “it’s us or them”
ready to condemn those
from across the sea.

And her mother remembers
The Easter Risings.
Her grandmother’s mother
remembers the Potato Famine.
Shannon remembers The Troubles.
She breathes through her nose
and out through the mouth.
Thinking about this history,
she lights a cigarette
and calls her friend Siobhan
and they talk.

About:
The Suffragettes,
The Freedom Riders,
Angela Davis and second-wave feminism,
and Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique,
Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar
They talk about their
ancestors who sailed to the New World.

Photographer: Leon Bliss

But Shannon’s world was the Women’s War
in the streets of Belfast where
the rivers ran free with blood and bone.
Where homes were pillaged,
where families were broken,
where the workhouse had made a comeback.

Years later, the two women run into each other
on the streets of Belfast.
They ask one another how they’re doing.
Siobhan drops her shoulder. Shuffles away,
her gaze dazed by this awkward silence.
She knows her friend hasn’t changed.
Siobhan calls Shannon reckless.

If she was to ask her what she’d done all these years,
Shannon would have talked about her history degree.
She would talk about her pro-human rights activities.
She would have talked about the marches she’d been on
against the counter-productive, sex-shaming
methods of organised religion.

Photographer: Nathan Dumlao

I want to write a poem
for the women of Northern Ireland,
whose words stretch like elastic bands –
who fought like the Amazons,
who survived a red scare from
those who had a dystopia for a heart,
who sold their souls to the Queen and Empire.
An ode to the cloth – chaotic, broken,
the international anecdote of Victoria and Elizabeth.

And read it out loud through this land –
statues, stately homes and street names.
Flags like body bags. Great Britain.
What a metaphor for colonialism.
The women are a stitched seam.
Split-tongued like the Caribbean,
like India and Indonesia,
and Benin and Ghana and Scotland.

They had to watch their sons though,
because they couldn’t put it past the boys
to not do something stupid for glory.
Even their own kin who have their
fathers’ hands, sweat and blood
and last week when a boy was murdered,
that was a mother’s son, a sister’s brother.

Photographer: Christopher Campbell

The boys were simply jail bait,
primed for the guillotine. I want to write
a poem for the women of Northern Ireland,
who did the real work. I show them a gun
and they tell me it’s not a big enough.
They were waitresses and mechanics
and social workers and housewives
and so much more than our
hypermasculine history books suggest.

But life comes fast you know.
One minute you’re fighting the red coats
and next you’re in the midst
of fourth-wave feminism in your new job
at a university. And then it’s almost over,
life I mean. You fought your way through it
and I can tell by the way your daughters
talk that there’s power in oppression.

And when they call you terrorists,
say thank you. Thank you very much.

Watershed (After Allen Ginsberg)

This is a poem that I wrote in my head in November and only articulated it onto paper two weeks ago.

I came into contact with “Howl” years ago but I only recently engaged with it personally last January, not long after starting university.

Allen Ginsberg is one of the figures of The Beat Generation, along with Jack Kerouac (On The Road) and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest).

In short, “Howl” is a declaration of personal experiences with religion, sex, drugs and society’s absurdities. Part I is about individual cases.

Part II talks about the  Moloch of society, which represses feelings and forces the victim to declare themselves mad if they do not suppress the said emotions.

Part III is a proclamation of sympathy with Carl Solomon (he’s in an asylum). In that last part, Ginserg is standing in solidarity with his imprisoned friend, extending his hand in friendship. This is an act of emotion in the poem, an idea that society seems to be subjugate.

In this act of rebellion, Ginsberg is embodying an anti-establishment attitude, thus sticking it to The Man, to put it bluntly.

“Watershed” was written as a stark contrast to “Ode to the Millennial Generation” and a modern rewrite of parts one and two of “Howl”. The title comes from that time after 9pm on television when all the darker / morally-ambiguous shows arrive on air.


I

I saw the greatest people of my youth destroyed by society – pure, naked, rancour; hauling themselves through the streets in the midsummer looking for something to do,

music-headed millennials listening to the sounds of Paul Weller and Bob Marley looking for a connection to their parents’ generation,

the people who plodded through poverty and sat up smoking seeing the supernatural silhouettes of spectres floating across canopies of towns and cities in an existential crisis.

Photographer: Stas Svechnikov

These are the millennials who bared their knuckles to Snapchat and Twitter, hash-tagging their way through Wikileaks and Edward Snowden,

who passed through university swimming from the loan shark – dead eyes hallucinating like seeing giant chickens on the streets of Amsterdam,

those who cowered in cubicles making memes with nooses to hide their depression –

today’s kids who advertise their beards and long hair like Gandalf posing on the cover of Vogue.

They’re confused, like fish seeing land for the very first time, along with dreams, drugs and disillusionment. Walking nightmares, alcohol and one night stands that turn into functional relationships

on the blind avenues of a sporadic cloud and thunder in the landscapes of Bangkok and Melbourne, illuminating the rude awakening of real life.

Photographer: SHTTEFAN

Rookie soldiers of the twenty-ones to thirty-fours, responsibility and family life dawns while wine drunkenness catches their eye –

joyriding and jaywalking with no care, sun and moon and nature’s touch in the season of orange in Central Park, as poets and actors preach in the streets,

as feminists protest like Civil Rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery under the threat of dog’s teeth and tear gas and police chants and horses and riot shields and batons and the legacy of Jim Crow,

and the millennials would yawp and whisper war stories about when they’d been arrested and on which march – the shocks of A & E, jail and combat – whole minds deteriorating in a seven-day layover with prison food, like vomit from concentrate,

those who disappeared into the cracks of Birmingham. Broad Street and New Street, leaving a trail of blood to the Rep Theatre,

watching poverty run riot by the riverside restaurants, as the homeless wander asking for change so they can live another day.

Photographer: Spenser H

The millennials who jump in taxis to go two minutes down a road, those who lay hungry and broke in cafés talking about literature,

and those conversations disappeared into the tattooed trees on the table and into the local narratives and told tales of Northampton, Bedford and Cambridge,

and further still – into the West Country of Devon, Dorset and Somerset, places that investigate newcomers and make you forget city life and its liquid lunches,

inflicting scorch marks on the anticlimactic nature of capitalism in The West – places where police create more black stars than Hollywood,

millennials who broke down in jail cells and wailed like sirens when they just happened to be wearing a hoody in a white neighbourhood –

who were raped by those who preyed on low self-esteem, taken advantage of like the slaves who worked the plantations in Mississippi and Morant Bay.

Photographer: Maciej Ostrowski

But the millennials went on partying through Manchester and Liverpool – a juxtaposition to the legacy of slavery. Myriads of slaves at auctions who stood all day with bloody feet.

My generation who watch Black Mirror and Westworld as Theresa May perfects the art of crashing the NHS,

the young people who read romance novels in Costa whilst plugged into bad music, who sit depressed under their own storm cloud,

who had suicidal thoughts in school and were told to get over it – like depression and anxiety were no different to burning your hand on the grill.

The generation that murmur all night, scribbling incantations on how to be happy in blank verse, who watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower like it was the story of their lives,

who cut their wrists at breakfast, lunch and dinner and were forced to open nostalgia shops when they failed, who hanged themselves in their bedrooms and were forgotten.

Photographer: Jens Thekkeveettil

The people who sang  in Warsaw and retired to their beds… forever to tend their war wounds like it was 1st October 1939 all over again,

who were given daggers for their “ums” and spears for their “likes” and electroshock therapy to cure their anxiety of the tomorrow.

Camden Town and Oxford arguing on how to talk and how to live, tongues wagging from midday to midnight,

and those who dreamt up stories on the bus in long sentences, trapping the metaphors and similes with semicolons and subordinate clauses,

who boobie-trapped the verbs and nouns with dashes and commas in long sentences like Oscar Wilde.

And in the spirit of jazz in New Orleans, saxophone’s cry across the water with the tears of a thousand years of blissful adolescence, and are good to grow one thousand years more.

Photographer: Jens Thekkeveettil

II

What foul creature carved out their souls and imagination?

Society – isolation – independent loneliness and inflation. Young people screaming in their homes. Children caressed by Hollywood divinities.

Poverty sleeping in the parks. Society! Society! The nightmare of society. Loveless in its mutilated Marxism, the brutal judger of broken people.

Society, the unimaginable jail. Society, the black dog walking through the graveyard. Society with its logos of judgement and stunned governments,

whose minds are machinery; whose blood is money; whose fingers are on the nuclear codes; whose torso is a bonfire of the youth; whose souls are stocks and shares.

Society where people sit alone, scared of their own faces. Society with its containment culture and cookie-cutter flats and invisible poverty lines and fake wars –

visions, symbols and miracles down the Thames. Dreams and aspirations gone with a whole truckload of toxic political correctness and fragile masculinity.

A storm. Epiphanies, politics and religions gone as the boat flips. Despair! Years of suicides and crazy crucifixions into a haze of holy yells.

Walter

I wrote this poem specifically for a performance at Northants Black History Association. Focusing on local history, I decided to write a poem about Walter Tull.

Walter Tull was a footballer who played for Tottenham Hospurs and Northampton Cobblers. He was also a soldier during The First World War, being the first Black British-born man to reach the rank of officer in the British Army.  His father was from Barbados and his mother was a Kentish white woman. Tull’s grandfather was a slave and Walter was killed in 1918.

My poem, Walter, is based on Mulatto by American poet Langston Hughes and on Checking Out Me History by John Agard. Both poets are known for critiquing and discussing racial politics and culture in their work.


I am like you white man, British!

European dusk
in a graveyard nation.

“You’re not British.
Just a yellow bastard!”
Like Hell!

Walter Tull. His grandfather, a slave.
His father, black, his mother, white
footballer turned soldier
in Footballer’s Battalion
and first Black British-born
man to lead white men
to fight in battle. 

White moon over No Man’s Land.
French frosty night,
full of stars,
massive yellow stars.

What’s war but a game?
Bodies of flesh
and bone.
White, blue, brown and black
men blown to bits.

Tull signed at Tottenham in 1909, making him the first black player in English top tier football 
(Walter Tull, edition.cnn.com)

The scent of rotting flesh stings the night air.
“Who are your parents?” a voice asks.
And there Walter lingers in his mixed-race mask.

Another yellow sunrise.
Half of a yellow sun
and his comrades drop one by one.

From Barbados, his father
travelled far and Walter to war.
He volunteered to go,
trading football for France’s
bombs, bullets and bayonets.

The French sky is full of stars.
Massive yellow stars as light as
the dawn, showing these white
men he was no pawn.

To them he was nothing but a toy.
A yellow bastard boy.
He went out into the night, showed
the English how to fight.

The SlaveTrade was a rotten business that even the descendants of slaves today are affected by
(The Triangular Trade, BBC Bitesize)

Walter, forward-thinking
black man of big ambitions
moving boulders over white river
rapids to freedom street.

And when he died in Spring 1918,
stars were seen dancing through the air.

A British night,
a British joy.
I am British white man!
Yes, a man, not a bastard boy.