godfre: morissey, billy bragg on the riots in england

I think it better at times like these

We poets keep our mouths shut, for in truth

We have no gift to set a statesman right. . .

—William Butler Yeats, 1915

When Yeats responded to Shelley’s famous claim that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” one wonders whether they were in fact addressing the same thing. The lines quoted above, composed in 1915 as A Reason for Keeping Silent and republished as On Being Asked for a War Poem in 1919, were in response to a request by Edith Wharton to contribute to an anthology of literature concerning the First World War. By “We have no gift to set a statesman right,” Yeats was remarking on the political inutility of poetry—and in light of Yeats’s work to come, this political inutility came to serve as a wellspring for the separation of art and life most forcefully articulated in his widely-anthologized 1927 poem Sailing to Byzantium.

One wants to account for the different historical circumstances of Yeats and the competing forces of England’s stake in the First World War and his own (Irish) stake in the coming Anglo-Irish War on the one hand, and Shelley’s England in the wake of Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the French Revolution on the other. The roles of poetry and of the poet served very different functions in relation to Yeats and Shelley’s respective societies, a century and a contested border apart. And yet we encounter the two as part of an unbroken history of English literature, Wordsworth before Shelley, and Milton before Wordsworth. But after Yeats, what? Did Modernism and the exhaustion of Romanticism’s political promise really mark the end of English literary history?

Or, in the context of the events in England last week, are we right back in 1915 with the thorny suggestion that the beginning of a politics of resistance might necessitate the end of art?

A third line kept coming to mind last week: “And there’s plenty of artists around/Painters steal cars, poets nick guitars.” This is from the English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg’s 1996 album William Bloke, which envisions its own afterlife of English Romanticism and political struggle. The song in question, Northern Industrial Town, ends with a catalogue of northern British industrial towns that the song is not about:

It’s not Leeds nor Manchester,

Liverpool, Sheffield, nor Glasgow,

It’s not Newcastle-on-Tyne—it’s Belfast;

It’s just a northern industrial town.

The contradictory logic of these lines, the simultaneous specificity and universality of the northern industrial town, wants not to treat the political-economic condition of the United Kingdom at the end of the previous Tory regime as a trope—that is, as generic. But the scale of this condition’s all-pervasiveness also necessitated that the specificity of Belfast (or Leeds) not be fetishized.

This was not the first time Bragg posed this question of how—and whether—to politicize art. Consider these lines from his Thatcher-era album Worker’s Playtime: “Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is/I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.” The song, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” displays none of the complexity and ambivalence of Northern Industrial Town, or of Yeats’s On Being Asked for a War Poem. It does, however, call to mind a song whose lyrics found a greater and more widely-acknowledged resonance last week, a contemporary to Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards that proceeds from the opposite perspective. That song is Panic by the Smiths, originally released as a single in 1986; in the place of Bragg’s accusatory he asks me, we find here Smiths singer and lyricist Morrissey’s facetious I wonder.

Panic on the streets of London,

Panic on the streets of Birmingham;

I wonder to myself—

Could life ever be sane again?

The Leeds sidestreets that you slip down,

I wonder to myself—

Hopes may rise in the Grasmere,

But honey pie you’re not safe here

So you run down to the safety of the town

But there’s panic on the streets of Carlisle,

Dublin, Dundee, Humberside;

I wonder to myself—

Burn down the disco,

Hang the blessed DJ;

Because the music that they constantly play

It says nothing to me about my life

Hang the blessed DJ

Because they music they constantly play

On the Leeds sidestreets that you slip down

Provincial towns you jog ’round

Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ.

The neat coincidences with the contemporary moment — “Panic on the streets of London/Birmingham” and “Burn down the disco” — ultimately matter less than the cultural point that Morrissey makes. Yeats’s “We have no gift to set a statesman right” finds its late-century analogue in Morrissey’s “Because the music that they constantly play/It says nothing to me about my life.”

Morrissey is not calling for a committed music—a label that we might attach to Bragg’s work—in the absence of (supposedly) vapid dance music. Rather, there is a proleptic logic at play here (Panic was, after all, not only a dance pop song itself but one that DJs played, peaking at eleven on the UK Singles Chart in ’86). In using the very medium that it criticizes, Panic makes the same observation that Yeats did at the seeming end of English literary history: art and life are no longer compatible; poetry can have nothing more to do with politics.

And in turn, the song Panic has nothing to say about the actual panic on the streets of London, Birmingham, Carlisle, etc. The self-critical moment of Northern Industrial Town, where the catalogue of place names must separate the general and the specific while simultaneously balancing the universal and the specific, does not exist in “Panic.” In Panic, we have only the catalogue itself: London, Birmingham, Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside; to which I add Bragg’s catalogue: Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Belfast; and, last week, history added Tottenham, Enfield, Brixton, Wood Green. . .

On the week of August 10, 2011, Panic was retrieved from the archive and placed at number thirty-seven on the iTunes UK Alternative Music charts. It was the only song in the Top 40 not released during this young decade. So how does Panic turn out, in August of 2011, to find something to say to us about the riots in David Cameron’s England? And furthermore, why Panic and not Ghost TownDancing on the DoleEton Rifles (an old favourite of David Cameron’s), or any number of songs by the Clash (London’s Burning,London CallingCareer OpportunitiesGuns of BrixtonWhite RiotThis is EnglandEnglish Civil War. . .)?

The song’s observation of historical closure and subsequent enforcement of it—the movement from “It says nothing to me. . .” to “Burn down the disco”—prepares us for that Billy Bragg line that has preoccupied me this last week: And there’s plenty of artists around/Painters steal cars, poets nick guitars.

I used to interpret those lines as an echo of the Marxist English literary critic Raymond Williams’s contention that “culture is ordinary.” Bragg, I thought, was making a case for culture across class lines—the thief might also be an artist—and, furthermore, for the cultural production of the political underclass—the words sung by the working class guitarist are poetry. But the events of last week provoked an interpretation of those lines that is far more interesting than the suggestions that thieves can be artists and that punk rock counts as poetry: looting itself is art and, moreover, art should strive to be like looting. This interpretation actually invalidates my earlier one, and this is also the relevance of Panic in August of 2011: not to call the political place of poetry and songs into question, but rather to assert that if art is to have any place in politics, it must take on the decidedly un-poetic form that the riots have taken.

I point the reader to the much-cited on-the-ground ITV interview with a Tottenham youth:

Reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

Youth: Yes. You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?

Reporter: [searches for a response]

Youth: Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.

This much-repeated point isn’t likely one you haven’t read before, and you don’t need a pop song to drive it home. Instead, it is the riots that tell us about the two songs, to retroactively contextualize them. This speaks to the place of the political song in the present, twice invalidated: first the self-invalidation of the political song at the hands of the artists, and now its invalidation by history. (It does not hurt this is a riot no one is willing to claim; one notes even the conspicuous, and well-received, media absence of U2 this week.)

* * *

We have come to give you metaphors for poetry.

—Yeats

In Northern Industrial Town, Bragg points to the limits of the political song. If Leeds is the same as Manchester, and Glasgow no different from Belfast, then the actual conditions of that moment in 1996 when the United Kingdom’s economic death-spiral had almost finally gathered enough momentum to end the four-term Tory run lose their historical specificity. Northern Industrial Town becomes Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town; any political song becomes any other political song.

The flipside to the generic is the universal—not the universal in the sense of “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” but in a synchronic sense and, furthermore, marked by sheer ubiquity and accumulation. The rote recitation of “Liverpool, Sheffield, nor Glasgow,” in Northern Industrial Town and “Dublin, Dundee, Humberside” in Panic speaks to our experience of the riots, as they began in Tottenham and multiplied in the subsequent days. The spirit of this accumulative collectivity—a kind of voluntaristic me too—resists Shelley’s defense of poetry, that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

But, read through Northern Industrial Town, the riots also give rise to a new, un-poetic definition of poetry: the line poets nick guitars turns poetry against itself. We are now a generation removed from the Radio Free Europe moment of the Eastern European independence movements, where the physical means of cultural production were appropriated from despotic regimes and revolutions were indeed televised. Accompanying the events in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, etc. in 1989 were rock and roll soundtracks, and the illicit nature of Western rock and roll in the Eastern Bloc gave symbolic form to the real-life conflicts at the radio and television towers.

This was not the case in London this week. There was no prior meaning to the riots: no ideology to recite, not even a vague abstraction such as “democracy” or “emancipation” to chant. It thus does not make sense to imagine an outlaw poet stealing a guitar to make poetry; the real, unpoeticisable poetry is the stealing of the guitar. The new meaning given to Northern Industrial Town indicates that this “real” poetry does not reflect or give meaning to or aestheticize (or, as Shelley would have it, make possible) the historical event; it—the looting and fires—is the event. Why? There is no why.

* * *

Romantic England’s dead and gone, or Fiat mundus, pereat ars

The poetic form of the riots is precisely their inability to be assimilated to generic norms. Meaningless, the riots cannot take symbolic form: no song can put what has happened into words or musical language, and so no song has been elected as the anthem to the last week. Instead, we have Panic, which artfully declares its separation from life. If we concede to historiography that the end of English literary history must have something to do with the contemporaneous foreclosure of the Romantic Revolutions envisioned by Wordsworth and Shelley, this is less an end of politics than it is an end of political art as it had been known.

The political legacies of Shelley and Yeats come not without the two’s embarrassment at being born into the aristocratic class. The poetic legacies and literary canonization of the two erase this embarrassment, and furthermore erase the quality of their poems that addresses what we now would call the “general public.” The riots were in large part a reaction to the concept of culture, as it constitutes class relations in the particularly acute and eccentric way that it does in the United Kingdom. And so this time there are no Billy Braggs with their own embarrassment and their “usual excuses”; no one was fiddling while England burned.

If a blanket generalization can be made about the rioters with some degree of certainty, it’s that they are separated into two constituencies: those who feel that culture does not address them, and those who resent the fact that culture no longer addresses them. Culture, in this case, comes to stand for a kind of dignity that promises but is not limited to prosperity. This is a promise that the country can no longer keep. And if the riots have taught us anything, the lesson lies in the economic and political subjection felt by both the political underclasses and the underemployed middle class having now been reflected by culture itself (in this case, the English mainstream media) roundly and haughtily condemning the rioters.

As has been clearly illustrated by the historian David Starkey’s comments on the BBC this week, culture is not the real battleground here; it’s just an ideological smokescreen. And so the self-invalidating words of “Panic” return to us after twenty-five years, as if now to remark: the riots refuse to be cast in song; the rioters refuse to give us metaphors for poetry.

Godfre Leung –  Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism at Western Michigan University. He is a recent graduate of the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.  His doctoral dissertation was entitled The White Wall in Postwar Art: The Aesthetics of the Exhibition Space. 


 

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