Archive for February 2013

Polly Toynbee, Lord Rennard, and rape culture

In Polly Toynbee’s recent Guardian article about the upcoming Eastleigh by-election, “Eastleigh byelection should be about economics – not gropings or smears”, she addresses the emerging allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard, the former chairman of the Liberal Democrats.  Ms. Toynbee contends that the true focus of the by-election should be upon the damaging effects of the Coalition Government’s austerity policies, rather than “gropings or smears”.  During the course of her argument, there is one paragraph whose content is entirely problematic.  It reads:

“…(so far) the Rennard allegations look less than criminal: a grubby pawing of women candidates on a training session is revolting and all too horribly common. Yet this squalid little “not safe in taxis” tale is being bracketed with the serial rape of children in homes and hospitals by Jimmy Savile. It comes packaged with charges that gay-bashing Cardinal O’Brien touched young priests whose future depended entirely on him. Or it’s blended into Cyril Smith’s grotesque abuse of boys in care. Melding all abuse into one syndrome trivialises the truly horrific in order to nail the merely repellent but everyday groping of adults.” [My italics.]

These lines amount to a world-weary concession that this is just the way things are: that women’s sexual harassment in the workplace is just part of the unfortunate current of everyday life, and in the context of this crucial by-election it is something that should be overlooked for the greater good.  This sense of futility, however, lies at the root of a very dangerous argument.  It is an argument which suggests that only particularly appalling examples of sexual assault should distract us from the urgent national conversation about the country’s ailing GDP.  Moreover, it is an argument which neglects the fact that, if so many brilliant women had not been lost to politics through harassment such as that alleged against Lord Rennard, then their strategic skills might have averted Britain from its currently ruinous economic course.

If we look more closely at the wording of that paragraph, then we see further issues.  Ms. Toynbee seems concerned that Lord Rennard’s alleged acts should not be packaged with those of a Cardinal who allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with young priests. Yet those young women in the Liberal Democrat party were presumably just as dependent on Lord Rennard’s good grace for their career advancement as the young priests were dependent upon the favourable patronage of Cardinal O’Brien.

The final line of the quoted section gives cause for the greatest concern.  It does not follow that drawing national attention to the “merely repellent but everyday groping of adults” trivialises the “truly horrific” abuse of children.  The use of the word “merely” could scarcely have been less appropriate.  What is truly repellent is that we apparently live in a society where adults feel so entitled to harass other adults sexually that it should be regarded with a shrug as the natural way of things.  The thought that it is commonplace for women to feel “not safe in taxis” with the male superiors is wholly disturbing: and there is nothing “squalid” or “little”, about such a state of affairs.  Indeed, it is hard to read Ms. Toynbee’s words as anything other than a powerful statement of the ubiquity of rape culture.

Poetry’s premature obituary

This weekend, I was surprised to learn from an opinion piece in The Independent that “poetry is dying”. I was even more surprised to discover, in the following line, that “[actually], it’s pretty dead already for all intents and purposes.”

The bearer of this sad news was a Mr. Nathan Thompson, who like me is a poet. Baffled by his diagnosis – as were many others, who have produced swift and forensic replies here, here, here, here, here and here – I took a further look through his words for evidence of his claim.  It seemed that a cause of poetry’s death was the “poetry slam”, where rival poets recite their verse in turn in front of an audience and a panel of judges. I was bemused, then, to find from a fellow writer that Mr. Thompson earns some of his living by teaching people to compete in poetry slams.  If poetry is indeed dead, then it is Mr. Thompson who has been paid to administer the killing blow.

Fortunately, the rumours of poetry’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Poetry is not dead to Cerys Matthews or Janice Long, both of whom regularly invite poets to give readings on their BBC Radio shows. Poetry is not dead to the international fanbase of Scroobius Pip. Poetry is not dead to, say, the Birmingham crowds who regularly go to see Jodi Ann Bickley in action at her own night, Speak Up; it is not dead to the thousands wowed on YouTube by Polarbear’s performance of “Jessica”, or to those moved by Dean Atta’s delivery of “I Am Nobody’s Nigger.”  It is not dead to those who attended George The Poet’s recent show at the Royal Albert Hall, or to those who stroll down to the National to see Inua Ellams perform the latest of his one-man plays.

Poetry’s enduring role, I believe, is to capture moments and emotions with a rare and beautiful brevity.   “A Want”, by Joshua Idehen, was the most powerful dissection of the roots of the UK riots that I have read.  Warsan Shire’s “Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth” is as sublimely composed a collection of poems as I have seen. Each of these poets, and dozens more I have not named here, are just as accomplished on the page as they are on the stage.  This divide between poets who perform their work and those who do not is, I believe, a false one.  Whether written or spoken, poetry is either well-crafted, or it is not.

“Like sipping a fine wine”, writes Mr. Thompson, “reading poetry cannot be rushed…It runs bang against the grain of our quick-fix culture. It is already a lost discipline.” He is right to remind poets that they should learn their trade.  At the same time, he should also note that perhaps the outstanding performance poet of her generation, Kate Tempest, is also one of the most deferential to the poets who preceded her.  As she herself has noted, “before you write, you gotta read/So I read Shakespeare, Blake, Beckett and Sophocles”.  She is an example of the excellence that can be achieved through diligent study of the art-form.

Moreover, whilst poetry is a discipline that reveres its elders like few others, it is striking that some of the greatest talent that I have witnessed in recent years has emerged at the Roundhouse Poetry Slam, for competitors between the ages of 16 and 25.  There, at an event very different from that caricatured in Mr. Thompson’s article, I have watched poets deliver work of a maturity that those twice their age would struggle to attain.  Were Mr. Thompson to wander along to watch the contestants one evening, he would quickly see that the world of verse is in very safe pens.  That he chose to declare poetry dead, without at first checking any one of numerous places for its healthy pulse, is therefore a matter of great regret.