ALAN MORRISON AND THE 'CONSCIENCE-RIDDEN' TRADITION OF BRITISH SOCIALISM


Keir Hardie Street, Alan Morrison (98pp, £7.95, Smokestack)


     our words never be
     Ends in themselves, but means to unbind us
            (Keir Hardie Street
34)

Toward the end of Down and out in Paris and London
Orwell says: 'The English are a conscience-ridden race, with a strong sense of the sinfulness of poverty. One cannot imagine the average Englishman deliberately turning parasite, and this national character does not necessarily change because a man is thrown out of work.' Something of that 'national character' that makes the English a 'conscience-ridden race,' imbued with 'a strong sense of the sinfulness of poverty,' we see in Alan Morrison's Keir Hardie Street which has three poems: 'Keir Hardie Street';  'Widdershins Edwardiana?' and 'Clocking-in for the Witching Hour'.

I'll begin by saying that it is not fashionable any longer to talk about poverty or the working classes. The corporate-based publishing industry in the past two or more decades has effectively erased any possibility of a serious response to the plight of those whom we traditionally referred to as 'workers.' The power of Morrison's book partly emerges from the fact that it takes a clear stand by opening with Oscar Wilde's quotation from The Soul of Man under Socialism
which declares: 'With the abolition of private property ... we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism.'

Modernist influences especially Pound and Eliot can be observed in how Morrison uses the technique of evoking history through places to suit the central argument of the poem.

     I commuted along the City and South London;
     Not retreating, digressing, a mental pilgrimage
     In electric-flickered carriage underground
     To find new perspectives on the glum city above,
     Alighted at the ghost station of my haunted conscience
     In shadows of Progress' echoing tomb…
     Followed the stations on the curved roof carriage:
     MOORGATE…OLD STREET…ANGEL….KING'S CROSS… (19)

If modernism resolved the problem of thought versus emotion, the so-called 'dissociation of sensibility' that set in like an illness from the late 17th century onward to the 20th century; something of that resolution, a unified sensibility, an emotional experience that appeals to the mind and not just dissipate into empty, vacuous sentimentalism opposed to 'true' individualism, that intellectual feeling or emotional thought gives the poems a sense of thematic unity and despite the demands it makes on readers, Keir Hardie Street
is guided by passionate conviction; although like a true modernist Morrison never sacrifices form to content.

How movingly Morrison recreates the vision of a socialist world where individualism blossoms as embodied in the life and personhood of the legendary Keir Hardie (1856-1915), one of the founders of the Labour Party, and someone who contributed to the legacy of British socialism - a vision of an egalitarian society that is uniquely 'English,' rooted in the cultural experiences of Renaissance humanism and a defiant working class with a strong sense of the recognition of human dignity and its connection to labor.  

     Born in a haunted corner of Scotland, of kelpie-
     Humped lochs and Pan-piped galloping woods,
     Close to Claverhouse's groomed dragoons;
     Illegitimate son of a servant-girl from Legbrannock,
     Step-sired by an atheist carpenter,
     Schooled in obscurity's cramped one-roomed house,
     Raised on porridge oats and Robbie Burns --
     'Lines on Seeing A Wounded Hare'
     Fuelled him on compassion's damp-steaming anger --
     Fired in the pit of his belly's grumbling brogue,
     Conscience-lit by spark of injustice at first hand
     As a brow-crowded child, a Little Father Time
     Gifted burning vision, he cast off Calvinism,
     Its hair-shirt's thorny tag of predestination
     For Saved elects, Damned masses -- abject castes,
     Eschatological parallels to class --
     Into the mind's abyss, anathema as gallow hills
     And donned the spun Baptist overalls,
     Marched with the miners to massed Annbank brass,
     Learnt to speak in temperance meetings, teetotal of tongue,
     Soap-box for a pulpit, tugged himself up rung by rung,
     From blacklisted collier to collared correspondent
     For the Airdrie District -- editor of The Miner... (30-31)

British Socialism is as much British as it is socialism. Its unique character can be seen in the personality and work of Johnson, Blake, Dickens, Wilde, Chaplin and John Lennon. The poem recreates the spirit of British socialism that is about believing in a conscience and awakening it through a politics of what is right as opposed to what is wrong. The ethical comes before the political and in fact one cannot be separated from the other.

British socialism combines conscience with a class-based understanding of history. But, unlike Marxism which is restricted to a materialist analysis of the past, what we see in Karel Kosik's Dilaectics of the Concrete
, the language of protest on the English socialist landscape appeals to the sense of justice of its audiences. In the films of Ken Loach we see it distinctly - on the one hand, it is anti-extremism as in The Wind That Shakes the Barley dealing with Irish independence, while on the other hand its sympathies are fairly clear as in the character of the Scottish bus driver George Lennox who goes to Nicaragua to encounter a different kind of reality in Carla's Song.  

Something of Blake's indignation in 'Holy Thursday' combined with Swift's bitter irony can be seen in lines like the ones below.

     Q: I say, I say, I say:
     What creature goes on four legs in the morning;
          Two legs during the day
          And three legs in the evening?
          The worker who begs on all fours for a job;
          Gets up onto two to paw for his pay;
          And limps with a stick when forced into leaving.
(86)

The refusal to accept life as it is along with the possibility that it could be different is the mood that dominates the poetry. While reality forces itself upon the sensitive mind - 'Life is, was, will be, had always been / One languorous-long shelf bookended end-to-end --' (33); these lines are immediately followed by the fact that there is a language that stands for suffering humanity: 'for words / Were always meant as wings to lift Humanity, Or prolong Its spiritual hesitation -- /  What hope for us without imagination?” (33)

The paradox of making an existential choice is built into a narrative of hope filled with 'spiritual hesitation'; to Auden, mourning the death of Yeats, 'poetry makes nothing happen' - life does not catch up with the artist, it is the artist who has to catch up with life; for the Marxist poet in Nazim Hikmet's Human Landscapes
the choice is a reality, you either choose to take the side of the powerless or you embrace the cynicism of a life devoid of meaning; imagination brings with it hope, but not hope as in 'nostalgia' or 'wishful thinking' but hope as in social and political change that is the very essence of imagination itself. Hope therefore can only be ironic and irony is what the language of protest is all about, a 'means to unbind us.'

     Socialism (now there's a thing --
     partly of nostalgia
     as well as wishful thinking);
     requires too much concentration,
     and doesn't work, apparently.
     Capitalism? Unquestionably,
     at least for the majority,
     after all those dispossessed
     aren't worth accounting for anyway...
     …are they? (86)

           © Prakash Kona 2010