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  • Published in Opinion
Grenfell tower

'Our warnings had gone unheard': Grenfell Tower. Photo: Flickr/ChiralJon

A poem by William Alderson on the current state of Britian

May Days

Through Britain’s towns and Britain’s fields 

Unfettered Power makes her way.

All hope is lost, joy falters, yields,

And cold December, blighting May

 

Like flowers beneath her footsteps, wakes

A nation to the bitter fact

That times are hard; the steps she takes

Are forced; the payments she exacts

 

Are vital to our future gain.

With serious look and steady voice

She tells us we must bear the pain,

And that there really is no choice:

 

The maths is plain, a little paid

By everyone can clearly do

Much more than if the burden’s laid

Upon the shoulders of a few.

 

Her words, seductive, reassure

Some worrying about their debts

Or a future grown insecure

As change approaches. Meanwhile threats

 

Take up the slack where logic fails,

And those who can’t afford to make

A contribution she assails,

Insisting it’s not fair to take

 

No share from them. And yet we find

With every penny scrimped and saved

Our freedom is reduced, confined,

Our lives contracted and enslaved

 

Until the tree-lined streets and lanes

Of Britain are become a jail,

A prison in which Power reigns,

And protest is to no avail.

 

Meanwhile, her cuts in business tax

And generous emoluments

To private firms for these attacks

So boost investor confidence

 

That Britain buckles under Wealth, 

That genial rascal with a grin,

Who lifts a pint to wish you health –

So long as you have brought them in.

 

He never pays a penny out

On any pleasure but his own,

And pulls the public purse about

Like fox hounds with a meaty bone.

 

For Wealth it is who cuts the keys

To every new-built prison cell –

By stripping from economies

The cash which drives the carousel

 

Of services, production, jobs

And trade, he jams the works. Each horse 

Which danced in painted joy he robs

Of movement; bound to Wealth by force

 

Of twisted contracts, they’re denied

All certainty of pay, while he

Will hug the profits to himself, and ride

The worker, sink the refugee.

 

Here trots the many-headed Press,

A rabid dog which snarls and bites

The hands which feed it, though no less

A willing guardian of their rights.

 

It barks to drown out other views;

It rends the truth and growls at those

Alleged to fabricate fake news,

But all the time its bias shows.

 

It pisses moonshine, lies distilled

So crudely that they make you blind,

And leave you sweating, trembling, filled

With terrors which confuse the mind.

 

In this company Power stalks

As warder of the British jail,

While boasting that she never baulks

When hard decisions must prevail.

 

Three thousand children on her soul

Would not be sacrifice enough

To turn her from the noble role

Of being honest, fair and tough.

 

Now noises come from every side

As murmurs rise to cries of grief

Or anger at “Request denied”.

A heartlessness beyond belief,

 

It seems, to those who nearly died

Escaping persecution, war

And famine, to be told they lied

And cannot stay here anymore.

 

Rendition passed this man to tools

Of Power and her harsh demands,

But nobody who broke the rules

Will face official reprimands.

 

This woman dragged along the floor

With scars from torture on her skin

Still hopes to see her child once more

And heal the deeper scars within.

 

This coffin holds a man assessed

As fit for work a day ago 

By state contractors unimpressed

By anything that doctors know.

 

Too many sanctions so subdued

This woman that she fears to meet

The boss’s eye when interviewed,

And all her efforts bring defeat.

 

Late benefits and meagre pay

Force starving people to the shelves

Of foodbanks which are filled each day

By willing staff, unpaid themselves.

 

The student who would volunteer

Is juggling study, work and debt

(From which she never will be clear).

The teacher’s driven to forget,

 

By teaching to exams and Sats,

That learning can be fun. The nurse,

Her wages capped by bureaucrats,

Resigns her job, while doctors curse

 

Their increased shifts. So too increase

The number of emergencies

Which strain the firemen and police,

As all the cuts in services

 

Drag care at home towards collapse.

While far away the soldiers’ lot

Is poor equipment, handicaps

which mean they are blown up or shot.

 

So on and on the wasted lives

Pile up, the straw and chaff of fields

Where every winnowed penny drives

Wealth’s greed for great and greater yields.

 

Until a careless hand lets drop

A spark of hope into this tinder,

A wisp of flame no-one can stop

A growing blaze no-one can hinder … 

 

But then, in dreadful blasphemy,

The metaphor becomes exact –

Where they had burned symbolically,

The living poor now burn in fact.

 

As though a second sun ignited,

The world acquires a double light,

Two Londons interlocked but disunited,

Two visions separating in the night.

 

Where Wealth and Power stand in all the blaze

Of selfish triumph, now beside them stands

A tower of sulphur flames and reaching hands.

A baby falling through the haze

 

Of smoke and debris, in the hope

Its future will be saved, is caught

By Power? No. Its life is brought

To safety by those hands which cope

 

Day in, day out, with giving care

To others. Power lets them slip,

Her hands too bloody to keep grip,

Her ministry grown deaf to prayer.

 

Church and mosque,

we open our hearts, our hands and doors

to all our neighbours

who organise the clothes and toys,

 

food and drink,

bedding and toiletries, brought for those

who have fled their homes

with only what they’re standing in.

 

What we can

we do for them; we give them a bed,

though to sleep is hard

until the waking nightmares pass.

 

Some have room

to give them more – a mother and child

get a new home filled

with love, while they cope with the news.

 

Grief and fear

are proving a burden far too great

for others; we sit

and quietly listen while they share

 

Tales of loss

they cannot believe, but know are true,

until we grow sure

time will confirm the dreadful cost.

 

We feel rage

they cannot express, and take their part

in march after march

for truth, for justice and for aid.

 

On the walls

We all share our photographs and words,

So silence is heard

When there is nothing else at all.

The council and the government,

Like Power’s folded arms, hold still

And silent, lacking any will

To help. While they are negligent,

 

The local people act. They come

As volunteers who make no charge

For what they give – their hearts are large,

Their hands are ready, they don’t succumb

 

To doing nothing without pay: a form

Of shadow role is taking shape

In what they do. New truths escape

Control, beginning to transform

 

The whole idea of who should rule,

Who should decide, and how they do –

And slowly, as they think it through,

The people turn on every fool

 

Who had authority but failed

To care about what should be done.

Out of the smoke the second sun

Shines brighter and won’t be curtailed.

In the chaos of smoke and flame

we cling to a hand, a thread –

black or white, 

living or dead –

it is all the same in the dark,

in the silence of screaming and quiet words

on the stairs, on the phone,

each voice our own

and none the same and all the same.

 

Day after day

with nowhere to stay and nowhere to go

we remember the broken thread,

the hand let go,

but still do not know

who is living, and who is dead.

 

Our warnings had gone unheard –

so many, so long – a world

of experience gathered to speak

and left in the dark,

and even twenty-four floors of truth

are obscured in the need to find an excuse.

 

But for us it is day;

the threads of the future are black and white,

we know what is wrong and what are our rights

as the promises break and we are betrayed.

 

When the children look up, and we must explain

why home is a crater, a ruin (again),

why love is a spreading stain of blood and soot (again),

why we’re not sure if we’ll eat today (again),

We will not be unheard again.

 

We will tell them why.

The fire is here now. Goodbye.

But Power, with a billion pounds

To slip to those who give her strength,

Pushes these victims to arm’s length,

To her five million really sounds

 

Enough to buy new rags. She knows

From long experience far more

Will be donated and the store

Of willing helpers only grows

 

As she falls short. Let charities

Pick up the tab and pass the cost

Onto the poor she’s double-crossed

Before; let strangers, families

 

And friends give care and homes. Wealth spurs

Her on, he wants no riff-raff here

To cause new purchasers to sneer

At low connections; social slurs

 

Could wreck his life, you understand.

The Press runs round in circles, mad

With contradictions – news so bad

Cannot be buried, but it’s fanned

 

Such rage against its masters that

Each fresh report becomes a threat

To Wealth and Power, each regret

Mere mouthings of a plutocrat.

 

Their trusted strength begins to fade

Like shadows in the rising sun,

The new light, shining on what’s done

And undone, puts them in the shade.

... for we are the missing

uncounted and nameless

cremated or buried

or cargoes disposed of

with nothing to mark us

for we are the missing

both adults and children

from factories tunnels

construction of buildings

plantations and houses

from battles and protests

we gather un-numbered

to be with these others

for we are the missing

who burned on the altar

of cutting of corners

or saving of pennies

or just disregard for

the interests of people

who seem unimportant

to those who will profit

from death and destruction

deformity sickness

or injury wasting

the lives of so many

for we are the missing

in earthquakes eruptions

tsunamis infernos

and landslides who lived on

the edge of disaster

because there was nowhere

more safe we could go to

for we are the missing

the present and future

erased from our being

the past unforgotten

enduring forever

for we are the missing ...

The shadows of the past break through

The long delusion of the age –

The smoke and mirrors on the stage

Exposed, revealing what is true.

 

Now Power’s human smile is shown

To be a mask she hides behind,

Her eyes mere empty sockets, blind

To any interests but her own.

 

Wealth brings no living without cost,

Creating social dystrophy

Through work that’s all but slavery,

Starvation when a job is lost.

 

That justice, which saw nothing wrong

In making poverty a crime

And waging dodgy wars, in time

Will come for them. Meanwhile a throng

 

Of artists, carers, volunteers

And others freely give support

To all those Wealth and Power extort

For their last breath. The darkness clears,

 

As tens of thousands start to lend

Their voice to calls that straight away

We should raise benefits and pay;

Austerity, they say, must end.

 

Displaying solidarity

With those who suffered at her hands

They party, rap to decks and bands,

And celebrate community.

It’s grime

Is how we’re livin’, how we rhyme.

We’re doin’ time.

We’re victims of a greater crime.

We’re doin’ time.

We’re doin’ time.

We’re victims of a greater crime.

We’re doin’ time.

 

They turn the streets into a prison.

Stop an’ search and give no reason.

Treat us like we’re meat that’s rotten

There’s nothin’ left but to take the street.

Burn the street.

On the street

We’re everyone we meet, the city beat.

We’re doin’ time.

We’re doin’ time.

We’re victims of a greater crime.

We’re doin’ time.

We’re doin’ time.

 

Lookin’ back at life, I turn the pages.

See they give me nothin’ but a life of cages,

Trapped in shitty jobs with shitty wages.

Now my home is where they saved a buck,

Cos they couldn’t give a fuck.

They got rich off my bad luck

And pretty looks is shitty soot

As fire rages.

We’re victims of a greater crime.

We’re doin’ time.

 

I’m burned out of where I’m livin’,

Why should I take what they are givin’.

I ain’t givin’ no forgivin’!

This fire rages.

Inside, outside, this fire rages

To be free.

We ain’t doin’ time no more.

We’re victims of a greater crime.

An’ we ain’t doin’ time no more.

We ain’t doin’ time no more.

We’re victims of a greater crime.

We ain’t doin’ time no more.

We ain’t doin’ time no more.

We’re free.

 

The sun is now eclipsed by light,

No longer blinding with the fixed

Ideas of Wealth and Power, but mixing

Different visions and uniting

 

Those whose lives had been confined.

The prison bars just melt away,

No stronger than the falling rain

Of water vital to the thriving

 

Growth of plants. We can step into spring

With poppies, elderflower, roses, bees,

A dawn to dusk of song, but more than these

The knowledge that our lives can change.

 

The first stone buildings in the world

Were built without the need for wages,

Inequality, chiefs or slaves –

The Maltese people had determined

 

What they needed and created

Through a thousand years of freedom

Lasting monuments to peace

And harmony without a state.

 

We are not starved for lack of work

But starved to stop us doing more –

A billion hands could end all worry

About the climate, war and worse,

 

But those who keep them idle seek

To trap our labour for themselves,

So work which doesn’t profit them

Will strip our means and leave us weak.

 

It’s in our hands to seize the future,

To recognise the bottom line

As strung along a fence we need to climb

To travel forward. One thing is sure:

 

Power is helpless when the people lead;

When life is managed from below

At work, in planning and at home

Democracy thrives in the streets.

 

A Parliament already hung 

Needs conscience dragging at its knees

To break its neck, and leave us free

To finish what we have begun.

 

Through fire we find the real solution:

Rejecting work as Power’s debtor

And choosing work for something better,

Where every person’s contribution

Is free, lifelong, unbound by pay;

Where every year is one long May

Of joy at change and revolution,

With fresh excitement every day.

 

William Alderson’s collection A Moment of Disbelief; poems on war, terrorism and refugees has just been published by Poetry Salzburg (http://www.poetrysalzburg.com). 

Tagged under: Austerity Britain Arts Poetry
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