New moon sighs in sky anew
Younger now than me and you
What are we to do?
Emily is twenty two
New moon sighs in sky anew
Younger now than me and you
What are we to do?
Emily is twenty two
Following on from yesterdays post, here is the poem I wrote…
They are everywhere
Hunched under blankets, cross-legged like broken Buddhas
Cups placed carefully in supplication.
Stubbed down like cigarette butts
They stink of the street
Soul-damped from all that recent rain
I walk by, wondering how it came to this?
What happened to the Welfare State?
Universal Credit, my arse. (1)
But despite my well-honed sensibilities
I catch a whiff of stale piss (and
Hegemonise,) because after all
We’re all Neoliberals now.
We must all self-actualise; pull on the power
Of positive thinking, lest we end up sitting here
On the street
With only ourselves to blame.
I walk on, eyes averted, but unable to fully
Escape the lingering stain of ‘we’
Polluting the place I made for ‘me’.
Perhaps there is such a thing as society (2)
(Or at least there was once.)
And what of these prodigal children?
Are they inoculated against love?
Or should each name should be spoken,
Each story woven up in purple prose –
Not as moral warning against the consequence of indolence,
But simply because it matters.
I have heard it said that we only truly know humanity
Whilst looking upwards
From very rock bottom.
But listen to me; what a middle-class, self-righteous twat I am
All I do is drop handfuls of inconsequential coin
Into wishing wells dug by other people’s
I am discomforted only in the direction of
Meanwhile, William curls around the spikes placed to keep him clear of Waitrose. (3)
Emily can no longer sleep on the Camden Bench (4)
inclined as it is towards the right.
For even the cold ground has been subject to Mallification. (5)
It is hallowed now for holy consumption.
This new world only welcomes shoppers
There is no common ground any more
It has all been monetised.
Whatever happened to the Tramp?
Are there still ‘Gentlemen of the road’ who wander free,
Unconstrained by convention?
Were there ever?
Perhaps the Tramping never was a choice,
Rather just what happens when people are trampled down
By the myopic mythology of privilege.
The Tramp was only ever a ghost;
A white Golliwog. (6)
Tramp no more, for we are post-Tramp.
The Tramp has been Trumped,
Replaced by “Bad People”
And “Immigrants.” (7)
But then again, to paraphrase Jesus,
(Who did some Tramping himself, remember)
Perhaps the Tramp will always be with us.
While we walk past on the other side of the road.
Pointing our pulpits at interior, individual evils
(Because Our Lord was Neoliberal too.)
The permissive society is the problem-
Forget the Tramp.
But there I go again, throwing stones from distance.
Unlike the Religious Folk,
I serve no soup on the cold November streets.
I provide no shelter from the helter-skelter winds of winter.
I bank no food for hungry families.
These words fill no bellies –
Not even mine.
But I have spent a half-life responding bureaucratically,
Policing the ragged edge of a shrinking Welfare State.
Trying to address symptoms, never getting near to a cause.
I wore a professional role stiffer than serge and tried to fit people into boxes
Which seemed deliberately shaped to chafe.
Sure, I never knowingly left anyone of the street
But I learned enough to conclude that Maslow got it wrong; (8)
In the hierarchy of human need,
Shelter is not always the foundation of the pyramid –
Not for the unloved.
Those of us who were never held
Will fall forever.
Society is a cold sea berged by jagged realities;
Poverty is ugly.
It makes brutes of us all.
It stains souls like nicotine.
And the broken people, they break things-
They may break you.
So, tidy them away if you can;
‘Care Manage’ them, then (9)
Close the case and move on, for
There are always more.
But blessed are the Vagrants
(According to the Book)
Holy are the holes in the shoes they walk in.
Blessed are the Hobos, for each one knows
That the Kingdom is theirs for the taking.
Blessed are the Down-and-outs,
for each one counts for more than me.
Blessed are the Beggars with their
grails of Polystyrene.
And blessed are the Tramps,
For they are the Chosen Children of the Living God.
And he is Jealous;
He wants them for his own.
He wants them for his own.
In the curve of a dripping arch
By the waters of Basildon
James sat down hard
And there he wept
For he had no Zion
And he had not slept for a week
His road was never walked as a pilgrim
It was a greased shit-chute
Which spat him here.
And James shouts into the darkness;
“Curse you, God-in-abstract.
Curse your cold stone steeples.
Curse your pigeon-stained glass.
Just give me a clear pane to look through.
For what use is a dry hereafter
When the winter rains come falling down?”
But when his rage receded
James pulled out his mother’s rosary
A few weeks ago now, I read a poem at a wonderful art event in Leeds. It was a long poem, written in response to some powerful photographs taken of people sleeping on the streets of Bristol by Steve Broadway.
Here is one of Steve’s images, and this is what he said about his piece;
“This year, I’ve spent more time talking to some of the rough sleepers in our city.
They’ve all got their stories…
The thing that has struck me most is their quiet dignity and their gentle friendliness.
I’ve never been threatened or verbally abused and they’re always happy to talk.
None of them likes the way they’re forced to live.
Some of them live in doorways.
Some live in small make-shift tents.
Some live in squats.
Some get the occasional respite of a night shelter.
Some are there because they lost their jobs and/or could no longer afford to pay their rent.
Some are there because of their own foolishness in the past.
Most are there due to circumstances beyond their control.
There are sad stories of broken relationships, broken homes… of being unable to cope.
There are sad stories of being verbally or physically abused by passers-by or rowdy drinkers.
There are sad stories of being robbed of what little money they had or having their tents slashed.
Many feel ashamed by their circumstances.
Many just want to be given another chance.
Many simply feel hopeless… utterly hopeless.
Most feel that society doesn’t care about them.
The sad reality is that, once you’re down, it’s very difficult to get back on your feet again”.
Too right Steve…
Then, last week, Michaela and I visited London. It was the first time she had been since 1989. We walked ourselves to the ground, and spent hours in the Tate, but one of the memories that will stay with me for ever was of all the people on the streets. How is it possible to walk past, unmoved? My lovely wife made sure that she held the hand of each one we stopped to talk to, but even then it felt utterly tokenistic to drop coins into their hands. Each encounter left us more impoverished, in a way that had nothing to do with money.
Around the same time, I visited my home town, a sleepy backwater in Nottinghamshire- the sort of place where people may be poor but this is not seen on the streets, until now. For the first time ever, I saw someone begging outside the local supermarket. A common sight elsewhere, but all the more shocking when seen there.
Steve’s portraits have been nagging at me since I saw them. As usual, when processing things like this, I turn to the keyboard and start to write… I try to find a way to respond to what I have seen that is honest and from within.
(Not one of Steve’s photographs. Think this was from The Guardian years ago)
My contention is this; in sociological terms, rough sleeping should not been seen as a singular problem, rather it should be understood as a litmus test for the health of our society. When the numbers of people rough sleeping rises, something is seriously wrong with society.
It should act then as a warning for the rest of us. Time to take a look at what we have become.
Estimations of the numbers of people rough sleeping are notoriously difficult for obvious reasons, but there is no doubt that the numbers are increasing dramatically.
(Another photo from an old Guardian article)
The individual stories these pictures tell are important. We should know their stories. Their stories should be told. But there is a danger in that too…
An iniquitous narrative has dominated our response to poverty in this country. It gained traction through politics, through social media, through rag-top newspapers, through all those ‘Benefits Street’ type of TV programmes. The narrative goes something like this;
The danger is then, that individual stories individualise the problem. In that dreadful neoliberal way, we ignore the collective- those complex societal reasons that cast people out onto park benches and drive them to food banks and advice centres. We site the locus of the problem in THEM, not in US.
This allows us to avoid asking questions that might actually make a difference;
What if greed is not good? What if all human interactions can NOT be summed up in the language of free-market economics?
What it rampant inequality destroys all of us?
What if poverty is a cancer that brutalises and ravages down the generations? Surely then the proper focus should be on alleviating poverty, not punishing the poor?
What if the real problem is brokenness in society? A break-down in our relating- an increased focus on one-step-removed-on-line-relating that strips flesh from our community and replaces it with silicon.
Our grandparents fought and died for a principle called universal benefits, seeking to banish the crippling shame of poverty forever. Each and every one is being dismantled. The only one left now is child benefit, and this will be gone soon.
There is a huge concern about the state of our health services- but remember that back in 1979, after a ten year enquiry into public health inequalities, the Black Report concluded that the issue of health was actually one of poverty. Everything else grew from there. Thatcher’s government buried the report under the thunder of war- the Falklands war.
In the face of all this, I am inadequate. My poetry, written from the comfort of my rural home, clangs like a hollow gong.
But after half a life time working in social work, it is all I have.
Tomorrow, I will post the poem…
This evening, I will be reading and listening to poetry…If you are within striking distance of the Roundhay area of Leeds, please come and listen too.
We will be at St Edmonds Church, Lidgett Park Road, Roundhay, Leeds, from 7.00 this evening, as part of the fantastic ‘World Upside Down’ exhibition, which is an artistic response to The Beatitudes in a time of Trump and austerity Britain.
Facebook details here.
Instagram preview here.
The ‘world upside down’ that the title refers to is perhaps well summed up like this;
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr talks a lot about the Beatitudes. Partly this is because the founder of his Order, St Francis, really tried to live them out. They became the bedrock for the Franciscan way of being.
Rohr is also concerned with a spirituality that is life long. We start as one thing, and unless we are dead to experience, life is a process of becoming. Sometimes we are damaged and broken, sometimes we are ascendant, but always we are changed. He contrasts two pivotal Biblical ‘lists’- firstly, the Ten Commandments and then the Beatitudes.
For Rohr, the Ten Commandments are useful to bring order and containment. They allow us to be right. They allow us to stand on our sense of correctness. For him, they are an important stage to encounter in early life. The problem only comes if we stay there and fail to grasp the lessons of the Beatitudes. Or as Rohr puts it;
In the Franciscan reading of the Gospel, there is no reason to be religious or to “serve” God except “to love greatly the One who has loved us greatly,” as Saint Francis said. Religion is not about heroic will power or winning or being right. This has been a counterfeit for holiness in much of Christian history. True growth in holiness is a growth in willingness to love and be loved and a surrendering of willfulness, even holy willfulness (which is still “all about me”).
(Excerpt taken from here.)
What Rohr is saying is that the ‘rightness’ of the ten commandments is a good thing. It is a good thing for our social collectives and for our families, but it is not enough. It is not a final destination. One of the problems is that it gifts us with a spirituality of the ego, in which ‘I’ can be right and ‘you’ are wrong.
Contrast this then, with the chaos of the Beatitudes. The rules are replaced with a world of grace and abundance. They are a call to transcend the limitations of law and move forward instead towards a second half of life encounter with something much wilder, much more freeing, called love.
And make no mistake, love is indeed chaotic. It pitches you into dangerous places. It disconnects us with our own rightness and reminds us that other things are more important.
It will not be contained, it leads us on.