Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright