Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Nasty Little Press, 2011 £5.00

 

 

Sphinx seven striperReviewed by Helena Nelson, Rob A Mackenzie and Robin Vaughan-Williams

Helena Nelson:
It’s not easy to tackle 19 pages of political satire nearly entirely in ottava rima. Luke Wright, a cracking performer, sets up an equally rollicking pace on the page. And this is amusing: the evil Lucien Gore, a very nasty Tory, meets a very nasty end. In fact, the end is probably my favourite bit: well-handled, well-versed and satisfying.


My problem in the middle was the bits where, to me, the lines didn’t run comfortably. I expect in performance they can be made to, but I want more than that. Not only that, I think Luke Wright is so good at his best that he’s capable of being consistently and formally fine. But I think he cheats a bit, skates past weak lines and weak rhymes which, if delivered at high speed with a power mike, may not cause pain, but on the page? Hm. Not so sure.

 

 

Here he is doing his thing well. I’m quoting a part where ottava rima gives way to a riotous chorus—the bit about the Tory chop—which is excellent, really fun:

 

 

.......While somewhere in bowels of Number Ten
.......a meeting of the inner government
.......was under way to change the rules again.
.......My friends, said Gore, our foes are lost and spent,
.......it’s time to slay the Monarch of the Glen
.......that savage public beast, that leftist pest
.......it’s time to prioritise the NHS.

.......Let’s carve it up! Let’s cut it up!
.......Let’s cock and pump it full of shot
.......Eviscerate the welfare state
.......and let the bastards rot!
.......You’re ready for the chop, my boys!
.......You’re ready for the chop, chop, chop!
.......Every single one of you
.......will feel the Tory chop!

You can see how good Wright is when he swings into full action, totally in control of rhythm and verve and message, all at the same time. It’s a sort of adult Roald Dahl ‘revolting rhyme’. But you can also see a weak line there—at the start of my quotation—“While somewhere in bowels of Number Ten”. This should surely be “the bowels” to be consistent with normal expression and metre (bowels can and should read as one stressed syllable). Does this matter? In performance, I doubt you’d notice. But would you, should you, get away with this?—


....... Come gnaw the Rusk of commerce, hungry gannets,
.......come tear the bloody meat of Oxford Street!
.......Then every time they sensed a rising panic
.......they cut council tax to keep the deal sweet . . . .

The council-tax line surely won’t wash. It’s all over the place metrically, and the wit of this form needs the rhythm to be right (no aural pun intended) unless it’s deliberately wrong for some particular effect. Luke Wright seems to me to be working in a Byronic tradition, but he has some way to go to match his noble predecessor.


Rob A Mackenzie:
After thirteen years of pseudo left-wing government, the Tories, led by the media-savvy Lucien Gore, sweep to power and begin dismantling public services. Luke Wright’s nineteen-page satire, in ottava rima, presents a solution of sorts and an attack on voter apathy.


Anger fuels the poetry and works particularly well in ironic killer-couplets. We meet the usual Tory types at the heart of the party’s leading team:


.......And to assuage the fashions of the day
.......Young Gore roped in a Moslem and a gay.

Zena Trigg, an inner city teacher, presents a vision of anarchic classrooms and the need for parents to start their own schools:


.......And Zena kept a blog and styled her look
.......then left her teaching job to sell her book.

 

Sharp! However, there are also problems. The “and . . . and . . . then” construction is poor style and exists only to pad out the metrical line. “Zena kept a blog, styled her look and left . . .” is obviously better. I noted similar padding throughout. Also, Wright occasionally seems content with phrasing that might escape scrutiny in live performance, but doesn’t stand up on the page. Gore’s team decides to destroy the NHS. His “PR goblins” get together to:

 

 

.................................................. .find a grim solution
.......which three weeks hence they did, but this would rob them
.......of any good that lingered in their gruesome
.......hearts.

 

 

That’s an uneconomic way of making this point, and strikes me as hyperbolic. The rage that energises the poem can sometimes make it feel cartoonish, and the angry “solution” the people find towards the end requires a lack of self criticism, as if evil resides only in the apathetic and right-wing.

I was nevertheless impressed with Wright’s control of a difficult form, despite his lapses, and with his willingness to attempt political satire at all. It’s treacherous ground and Wright often does well. He asks questions of those “who gladly pay their quid to ITV/ to vote for ghastly, gurning, chirping gorgons/ who fill their lives with false celebrity” and yet declare “Voting’s not for me” at a General Election. And my favourite stanza seemed painfully accurate in exposing how any of us can be manipulated in our desperation for a better future:


.......Like blind men with an elephant those Brits
.......all groped in hopeful darkness at the Tories,
.......took Lucien and his boys for what they wished:
.......progressive thinkers, middle grounders; hoary
.......reliable types who wouldn’t rock the ship.
.......They bent these bland deceivers to a story
.......of their own choosing. Lucien kept tight-lipped,
.......eventually the fragile balance tipped.


Robin Vaughan-Williams:
This attractive pocket-sized pamphlet tells a familiar tale, and one with which anybody fed up with the current government of David Cameron is likely to be sympathetic. There is an election, following “thirteen years/ of pseudo-left-wing rule and endless spin”, won by an ex-Etonian Tory leader, a “modernizer” who charms the public with his inclusive “
Softly, softly catchy Middle Britain!” approach, but once in power takes an axe to public spending, “cut[s] the NHS to bits”, and wages war on the poor.

 

The former PM, though not actually named, is identifiable as Gordon Brown by his “desperate gurn”, and numerous institutions of the contemporary British political landscape are named, from Murdoch and The Daily Star to Mori/Ipsos polls. But the main character, the Tory leader, is given a fictional name, Lucien Gore. This had me wondering why fictionalise the story at all when, aside from its revolutionary ending, it’s so close to reality.

 

This is a grotesque, of course (reality+1) so Luke Wright is able to exaggerate, bring out the nastiness in everyone. And pretty much everyone is nasty, apart from poor old Alf, the drunk “down the Lamb”, whose warning “‘this lot will cut our cash/ they’ll bleed us dry” is ignored by apathetic fellow boozers. The voters are as bad as the politicians, a variously simple, selfish, and zealous, stereotyped bunch ranging from a Daily Mail reader to a letting agent and an inner-city teacher. This makes the revolt at the end bittersweet, because it leaves a cloying feeling that the (swing) voters always get in.

 

Lucien Gore is an enjoyable political satire of our times. However, as satire, it’s not particularly effective. It may affirm some of your suspicions about the government, but it’s unlikely to challenge, surprise, or reveal because, well, the events it describes are so familiar. Nevertheless, I took great delight in passages like this:

 

.......Then Lucien did a guest spot on The Simpsons
.......and while the Twitterati had him trending 

.......his ministers cut rural transport spending.

 

I felt the poem would have worked better as either a tighter, non-fictionalised satire, or conversely as a more fictional piece able to give free reign to the poet’s imagination. The image of the PM and his right-hand man “trying to board a chopper by a rope” at Downing Street as “ten thousand Brits came streaming in” is one of my favourites, but a scene like this is only possible at the end, which departs from the course of historical (so far) events.