The Ballad of Suburbia

It’s two hundred years to the day since the Peterloo Massacre, on the occasion of which Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy. So here is something from my own archive, for the ‘interesting times’ in which we’re living. (I’m not all bards and blackbirds, either.)

The Ballad of Suburbia

A salesman came to suburbia –
nothing unusual there
except every household invited him in:
he was so softly spoken and woefully thin,
sipping tea on the edge of his chair.

His business was life assurance,
he’d not give them the hard sell:
he could see they lived life by the book,
had never once leapt before they had looked;
oh, he knew their kind only too well.

They got on like a house on fire,
he put one and all at their ease
while he fed them tales of fire and flood,
and other such things as chill the blood
like (perish the thought!) disease.

Now these were ordinary, neighbourly folk,
the proverbial salt of the earth.
They listened politely and offered more tea
While he warmed to his theme of the agony
Of under-insuring their life’s true worth.

***

No-one recalls quite how it occurred
that he bought a house in the street,
became a pillar of the neighbourhood,
a breath of fresh air that did them all good –
how he swept one and all off their feet!

He ferried the local kids to school
in a top of the range 4×4,
stopped on the yellow zigzag lines
before waving them off at the door.

He shopped online and ran errands
for those who were not so able,
filled tax returns, asked Alexa,
got broadband and installed cable.

He alarmed the car, rewired the house,
he put up security lights.
He chaired the local neighbourhood watch
and ran popular self-defence nights.

He was, they agreed, a real treasure:
how had they managed before?
So many years deaf and blind to the dangers
posed by plausible-sounding strangers
who go selling from door to door!

They felt, to a man, so much safer
now they never went out after dark,
shaking their heads at the state of the nation
while their kids went AWOL inside Playstation
and the swings turned to rust in the park.

‘You cannot be too careful these days –
Don’t you watch News 24? –
terrorists, knife crime, asylum seekers,
the selfish gene, the pound getting weaker.
Not us though: we’ve never been more secure.’

***

Soon, their greetings were clipped like their hedges
on the few times they happened to meet.
Meanwhile, indoors their curtains twitched,
friendships were ended, allegiances ditched
as a cold war broke out in the street.

So the people live in the shadow
of the deathly fear of fear,
see its likeness in all they encounter
and its whisper is all that they hear.

Tell a lie three times, it’s as good as true:
who needs proof when they’ve got Twitter?
No, you haven’t a right to a different view;
get over it, loser. It’s a joke you’re so bitter.

Lives are lost in endless un-newsworthy wars
and jobs in a global recession.
Wives lose their husbands to work and TV
and husbands their wives to depression.

This, all this, must be somebody’s fault –
there must be someone to blame!
Are you at a loss for whom to accuse?
The tabloids will readily give you some clues
and your scapegoat a chant-able name.

‘Cause each of us would rather forget
the dark we keep inside –
the heart of every fear: the fear in every heart –
that softly, quietly, bides its time
and takes love and life apart.

So beware, good people of suburbia –
forget all else but remember this please!
Beware the blue-eyed charmer
who offers to sell you rogue warnings like these.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Harry Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Nan’s window. He’s encased in a wear-shiny three-piece, with a cake tin under his arm.

He folds upon himself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting his elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ his words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. He might spring either way.

Does even an insect-man have feelings to hurt? God knows Nan’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless her.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

I was stuck. The project I am working on was insisting that I slow down, that I stop grasping for the words but rather let them come in their own good time, and that I practise listening out for them, as I might listen for the returning swifts. I know this, of course, but still… So I did an exercise by Ali Smith in The Creative Writing Coursebook (Edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. Macmillan 2001). The instructions were to write a story of 100 words in ten minutes and then to change the genders, but nothing else, and see how much the story shifts and why. May I introduce you, then, to Harriet, Harry’s identical twin sister:

Harriet Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Grandad’s window. She’s encased in a worn twin-set, with a cake tin under her arm.

She folds upon herself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting her elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ her words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. She might spring either way.

Does even an insect-woman have feelings to hurt? God knows Grandad’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless him.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

Well! Harry appears to be an ascetic, grasshopperish man who has come to share some cake with his friend. Harry is a widower. He bakes. He’s an interesting specimen of inquiry, maybe slightly repellent but worthy of respect nonetheless. Crucially, his motivations are not up for discussion. His sister, meanwhile, would be pitiable if she were any more than a stock character of ridicule: a dessicated old spinster intent on snaring Grandad with cake and not even a good, rich indulgent cake, at that, but one made from stale bread, Harriet herself being stale bread in female form: past its best, unwanted, surplus to requirement. Why don’t we just rip her to pieces and chuck her in the pond for the ducks? Harry has my slightly uncomfortable regard: the best Harriet can hope for is my pity. She is more likely to earn my scorn.

Does even an insect-wo/man have feelings to hurt? In Harry’s case this is offered as a genuine enquiry. Do I imagine in Harriet’s that I detect a whiff of ‘she’s not a “proper” woman so it doesn’t matter if her feelings are hurt’? Assuming she has feelings. Assuming she has something more than lukewarm tea weakly thrumming in her veins. I fear the blunt instrument that is Grandad is merely the latest blow that’s been dealt her, that she’s been crushed by. ‘Bless him’ confirms we are on Grandad’s side. Harriet is certainly not his equal, as Harry is Nan’s. And ‘my’ comment, that the cake is just right – could that not in this context be interpreted as a patronising knee-pat?

Why do ‘I’ feel that I need to be conciliatory towards Harry, minding his feelings, whereas to say the exact same words to Harriet is to be condescending towards her, implicating me in the imbalance of power? And/or, more worryingly, reveals me to be more akin to her than her twin brother. Turn it about as I might, whichever angle I view this from it looks like the same thing: internalised misogyny. And that is not an easy thing to sit with as a woman in her mid-forties.

Harriet didn’t exist until ten minutes ago but in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Harry was a real man, made of scant flesh and, to my child’s eyes, improbable length of limb. I was playing on the floor in my Nan’s living room when he tapped on the window. Nan was in the kitchen, slicing spuds to be made into the best chips in the world. He really did remark on the cake’s dryness and I really did want to reassure him that it was nice. I don’t recall what Nan said.

Postscript
In a reverse-Proustian manoeuvre I made a tin of bread pudding a few days after writing this. It was just as I had remembered.

Our Lady of the Sparrows

Once upon a time there was a girl who spoke sparrows. She didn’t speak to sparrows: when she opened her mouth it wasn’t words that came out but birds. This was unconventional, to say the least.

Her family was deeply embarrassed and didn’t know what to do with her until one day they had the bright idea of selling their story (her story!) to the papers. Well, after that, people flocked to their door to catch a glimpse of the miracle and gawp at the freak-show that was their daughter. Some chirped that she was a holy-woman, others squawked that she was a witch. Stephen Fry tweeted that she was a fraud.

The girl who spoke sparrows was very unhappy. She had things of her own that she wanted to say, damn it, but all anyone cared about was those bloody birds. Talk about stuck in a rut! Stuck in a rut with bird-shit all over the IKEA furniture, to boot!

So she made a decision. No words: no birds. She refused to open her mouth. People got bored and went home. They had uncooperative teenagers of their own.

Finally!… except that… after a while, the girl began to feel the tickle of feathers in her throat. Oh no! She swallowed hard. Now claws began to scratch at her. She couldn’t keep it in any longer. She opened her mouth and out flew not a sparrow but a HAWK! And then life got very interesting…

Welcome to Kathedron

Here, in a crowded marketplace, I offer you this. I know, I know: you are up to your neck in it; there is somewhere you should have been twenty minutes ago; you don’t have time for this nonsense. Granted, it doesn’t look much, but it is a whole world.

You can ball it to a disgusted nothing and lob it at the nearest seagull-priested bin. You can crumple it into your pocket along with your loose change and obsolete till receipts. You can pause for a moment in brow-furrowed incomprehension. You can ignore my out-stretched hand and stride past, your focus held, compelled, by the trail of gum gobbets and cigarette ends that guides your feet. You can nail your attention to the horizon over there, oh anywhere, over there! Your eyes can meet mine and flick away or glare me down. You might even glimpse this world, maybe even kick at the tumbled masonry amid the nettles and sneer at the god-fled ruin of it: what earthly use is any of that?!

Listen: the only way to see this world for what it is, is to become familiar with falling between the cracks in the floorboards with all the magnified momentary disruption and utter inconsequence of a lost button. It is a dark cramped place at first sight but light comes lancing down from the sky-boards’ flex and groan and illuminates a spark amongst the moth wing dust to kindle a humming bee-glimmer, warm and ancient and charged like amber.

And maybe the humming now has become a bell summoning the long lost in the back of your mind and here you are! Here you are: welcome to Kathedron.

For they labour for life and love, regardless of anyone

But the poor spectres that they work for, always, incessantly. *

*William Blake  The Los Poems: Jerusalem ch.3 lines 279-280