Alan Morrison comes from a tradition of political poetry stretching from Percy Bysshe Shelley (The Mask of Anarchy) and W H Auden (Spain), through to Tony Harrison (V), and Adrian Mitchell (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam/Iraq). He’s a serious-minded poet, quick and scholarly with a generous sense of humour. With his contribution to Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State (Caparison 2011) you see where his political allegiances lie. He doesn’t just talk a good game, though, he gets stuck in, and during 2008 to 2011 was poet-in-residence at Brighton’s Mill View psychiatric hospital.
There he pieced together Captive Dragons, his latest collection. It features picaresque observations about the patients/characters he encountered as well as an underlying polemical thrust, critiquing successive government policies on mental illness and the quality and relevance of treatment received. All of this is encompassed within a fantastic lattice of language, redolent of seaside living:
‘Lime-milkshake sea that recrudesces on a cluttered beach
Chuntering with pebbles and needles’
‘Under scientific spells, jinxes of shrinks, trick-cyclists,
Certificated sorcerers, alchemists of medications;
Tantric dragons transparently jacketed — scapegoats,
Possibly; drowned shouters of a seawater society
Tanning its back to panicked gasps; tortuous sculptures
Of corporate ectoplasms’
The juxtaposition of demotic and classical in this epic verse — ‘felt-tipped’, ‘bum fluffed’ alongside ‘Hylases snared by Naiads’ — takes the sting out of some of the more abstruse erudition, which can test the reader. And the Cantos I-XXXV (from which the above lines are taken), sinewy and demanding, come with extensive notes that are of themselves richly rewarding. These are followed by The Shadow Thorns, a series of 19 more personalised poems; reveries on his time working with the patients. ‘Lil of the twitches’ is one:
‘How ironic to be termed mentally ill
When it’s heightened sanity prompts the spill
Of her tired haemoglobin — a simple
Cut like the brush of a stinging nettle
On milky wrist, then berry-juice trickle
And slow ebb to a ruby bath; yet she
Fails at every attempt to release
Enough of the blood, or is punctually
Disturbed by housemates needing to empty
Their bladders in the night — she really needs
A less rusty lock on the lavatory . . . ’
This genuine affinity with people teetering on the edge, and the political commitment that is concomitant to righting wrongs, supporting holistic care and believing in people rather than dimming the lights with a ‘chemical cosh’, flows from his own personal history. ‘I can at least say that I was converted to socialism,’ he tells me. ‘Growing up in relative poverty between 11 to 16 in the late Eighties left an indelible impression on me, rinsed me of any childish allegiances such as patriotism, instilled in me an intense distrust of capitalism and political Conservatism, particularly as distilled in Thatcherism, and basically woke me up to what mattered in life: a roof over the head, sustenance, somewhere warm and dry to sleep, and the inalienable right of every human being to have the same.’
In capitalist industrial society we see instead the ‘expediency factor’, towards mental illness as much else. Many breakdowns are due to uncompromising work stress and yet governments seem to think that people can be swiftly reassessed through rigged criteria by profiteer companies such as Atos and thus be found ‘fit to work’. Conveniently, all this chimes with the time frames of economic demands, not those of the person’s condition, which can be chronic and prone to relapse.
Morrison says: ‘It’s as if patients are treated like faulty work units, put through revolving doors of psychiatric hospitals, pumped up with drugs and charged up like batteries. ECT [electro-convulsive ‘therapy’] is still used sometimes in order to get them ‘fit for work’ again. It’s dehumanising and the least likely means to help them recover.’
He describes himself as a democratic socialist, even conceivably a ‘Christian socialist’: a non-practising Catholic but a believer that Christianity and socialism are essentially the same thing. Emergency Verse had 112 poets including Michael Horovitz, and many donated small sums towards publication, most notably Michael Rosen, who paid for half the final print cost. Feted in the left-wing press, it was inevitably attacked in establishment quarters, and inexplicably overlooked by some more progressive magazines. It was the first verse response to the austerity agenda, and was named Emergency Verse as a direct riposte to George Osborne’s ‘emergency’ budget of 2010. Its sequel, Robin Hood Book: verse versus austerity, will include poems from such luminaries as Heathcote Williams, and has as its patron PCS union leader Mark Serwotka.
It was a different labour leader altogether, Keir Hardie, who brought Morrison to earlier political attention. His most political book, Keir Hardie Street (Smokestack Books 2010), is a hagiographical tribute to the life of Labour’s first leader. Critics referred to it as ‘an intervention’: an attempt to reignite the broken narrative of the British socialist tradition through a literary medium. Much of it is written in a sort of cockney pastiche (influenced strongly by both John Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ and T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’). So you get:
‘The city pricks up higgledy-piggledy against Calvary skyline:
A pencil-rub of pea-souped rooftops bruising on the paper arm
Of the street urchin pale, pearly horizon –
Soon brushed away by the charlady sun.’
‘The Diggers pitched a Golden Age at St George’s Hill
Ploughed Cobham clod with egalitarian till;
Robert Owen’s workshop co-ops hammered out a hew
To chop off Class’s branches; the Chartist martyrs
Trampled by plumed hooves at Peterloo;
The red-hearted Romantics, courting Napoleonics’
The prolific nature of Morrison’s writing has much to do with an obsessive personality. Epic poems can go through more than 100 redrafts. ‘Inescapably, my obsessional side plays a big part in my productivity and intensity of application to poetry,’ he says. ‘In terms of the subject of this particular book, I sum the work up, distinctly un-commercially, as a poetical exploration of psychoses and schizophrenia from a neurotic perspective.’ A hard sell if ever there was one.
R D Laing, whose controversial ‘anti-psychiatry’ dialectics have gone out of mainstream fashion, influenced the book. Morrison shares Laing’s central tenet that ‘mental illness’ is often a rational response to an irrational society. Neurological conditions aside (as those are often determined biologically), there’s a case to argue that mental illness is as much a socio-political pathology as a personal or chemical one, that society plays a huge part in shaping our psychologies and arguably those perceived as in need of therapy to help them cope better are in a sense being patched up by the same society that has damaged them in the first place. Thomas Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness is a case in point.
‘There is a paradox of responsibility here,’ says Morrison, ‘and I don’t think society has yet faced up to this. Hence the metaphor of dragons: a myth created to make something actually very human sound grotesque and frightening. It also taps into the old phrase on maps, “here be dragons”, to denote uncharted areas. I use this as the key metaphor to symbolise the right-hand side of the brain, which is still relatively uncharted. It is that side of the brain from which both psychiatric pathology and creativity issue.’
He believes, like Laing, that creative expression is often one of the most beneficial routes towards mental healing since it allows people to objectify their thoughts and feelings through self-expression. ‘Poems often come almost instinctively to those suffering psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia,’ he continues, ‘where the line between the literal and the symbolic seem blurred, and there is an almost primal capacity at metaphor, the chief ingredient of poetry. I’ve seen many in-patients come more to terms with themselves and heal over through writing poetry.’
Like Laing again, he is suspicious of the ‘medicative hegemony’ in modern psychiatry, which he claims often seems as incentivised by pharmaceutical profiteering as by actual benefits to patients and their conditions. Morrison, a poet and socialist to the core.
Captive Dragons/The Shadow Thorns is published by Waterloo Press
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out