by Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed
As Mark Ford’s 2012 anthology London: A History in Verse amply demonstrates, poetry depicting or set in London is one of the richest veins in our tradition, from Langland and Chaucer through Keats and Blake to TS Eliot and – in more recent times – David Gascoyne, Rosemary Tonks and Iain Sinclair. As well as the celebratory pomp of Dunbar’s ‘To the City of London’ or Wordsworth’s ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge’, there have always been politically-oriented poems intent on unearthing the more scabrous aspects of metropolitan society and the radical disparities of economic circumstance it throws up – the medieval ‘London Lickpenny’, for example, Samuel Johnson’s Juvenalian satire ‘London’ , Blake’s Song of Experience of the same name or Douglas Oliver’s counter-Thatcherite ‘The Infant and the Pearl’.
Whitehall Jackals by Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed arrives with such an overwritten blurb – this “gritty riposte performs an angry and elegant resistance” to the “dystopian backdrop” of the city’s “smut and glitter” – the book seems pre-aligned to carve out a niche within this dissenting tradition. It feels less a “psychogeographic collaboration”, however, than a two-hander, dual intercutting monologues rather than a dialogue, since we are given alternating sets of poems both with a slanted, peripatetic focus on London locales but each with their own itinerary, register and themes. This sense of a double-act bouncing off each other rather than co-composing - Reed’s camply bohemian flâneur against McCabe’s dourer, pithier straight-man – is energising in fact, the friction and interplay of the two voices making for a perhaps more dynamic read than if either poet had attempted a whole collection of such cityscapes. (“Psychogeography” has become such a loosely-employed term as to be all but meaningless these days; or at least since Will Self decided that going for walks and writing about them justified him calling a newspaper-column Pyschogeography, as though the whole concept had begun and ended with himself.)
Reversing the expected age-polarity, the now 62-year old Reed’s is the racier, more skittish idiom whereas the younger Mc Cabe pursues a rather more reflective and observant methodology endowed with a sense of sieving residues from the linguistic effluvia of metropolitan life, incorporating glimpsed signage, found-text and eavesdropped conversation into the mix. His is the more concerted endeavour to point up and defamiliarise features of the urban environment which embody baleful political influences and infringements, in particular delineating with grim dismay the effects of gentrification on the Docklands area in a sequential mapping that takes in Wapping, St Katherine’s Dock, the Thames Path, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey and Cherry Garden Pier.
McCabe’s deployment of prose-poems (perhaps distant relatives of Rimbaud’s London-set Illuminations) is especially effective in allowing vividly descriptive imagery and caustic speech-rhythms to combine forces in tracing the enterprise-driven dereliction of historical deposits which now characterises this riverside stretch. ‘The Thames Path’, for example, is said to be “a creation myth for the sale of leisure, a crippled thoroughfare of urban build latched at late-notice against the river”, whereas at ‘St Saviour’s Dock, Bermondsey’, the refuse exposed by a muddy high-tide – “buckets, packets, tickets...a wellington, a torn boot – mould spores clinging to their soles” – is set in bleak contrast to Canary Wharf and Canada Square towering above them, leaving the poem to question “where the river’s drive for commerce failed & where the tapering for the stars will end”.
Primarily a denizen of Soho and the West End, Jeremy Reed seems more intent on sketching his own self-dramatising autobiography onto the streets and cafes he frequents, in a restless odyssey for poetic valorisation that recalls Stephen Dedalus’s in Ulysses: “meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting (himself)”. In a scene now largely dominated by poets too pedestrian and career-minded to deviate far from the accepted gamut of styles they absorbed on their Creative Writing MAs, we are no doubt in need of exuberant mavericks like Reed, still in thrall to the Romanticist notion that “there’s no separation between the individual and the work” and that (to paraphrase the poem ‘London Flowers) everything he sees and does is poetry waiting to be written down. But although Reed’s language does still have a “zingy chutzpah” when compared to many feted poets half his age –the riffs of brand-names and serial-numbers often giving it what he calls a “crunched energy” - when reading him at length and coming across the marked repetition of vocabulary, cadence and metaphor that is a feature of these rapidly-fired-off poems one is reminded of Mallarme’s advice to Degas to the effect that ultimately a poem is made of words, not ideas or experiences.
Where Reed is most compelling is when he is able to marshal his scattershot flow into florid reimaginings of London history viewed from the perspective of a street-aesthete more interested in pop-culture than in museum artifacts. In ‘Ham Yard W1’– the prose-poem form lending itself to Reed’s urban annotations as appropriately as it does to McCabe’s – an apocryphal countercultural lineage is tracked from 18th century highwaymen through jazz and skiffle clubs to the RnB/Mod explosion of the 60s, culminating in a brilliantly-evocative scenario of Mick Jagger and the Stones performing at the Scene in ’64. Its companion-piece ‘Mods, Hoodlums, Guttersnipes, Punks’ continues the mythology through Marc Bolan’s early guise as an androgynous Mod from Stamford Hill, David Bowie’s Soho-fuelled transformation into Ziggy Stardust, Ray Davies as “dandified” London lyric-poet and John Lydon and the Sex Pistols gigging at the 100 club in 1977. This is edgy, vibrant musicology, where Reed’s intimate knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject-matter shine ebulliently through: a whole book of such charged prose-poems would create a highly original alternative history of pop and rock’s evolution.
If McCabe’s mordant deconstructions of the gentrifying tendencies of Coalition-lead London are powerfully resonant, Reed’s directly political poems seem to me less successful. The book’s title arose (he says in the Introduction) out of “mutual disgust with Tony Blair’s war atrocities in Iraq” and the project was “quickly activated in January 2011”: yet Blair’s invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003 and by 2011 he hadn’t been part of the Government for 4 years, serving (ironically) as Peace Envoy to the Middle East, so it is unlikely he would have spent much time in Whitehall when the book was being written. Again according to its Introduction, the book is intended as a “defiantly-intransigent leftfield indie whack against the city’s towers” but if this is the case, surely vitriolic broadsides depicting Blair as “a psychopathic jackal” and a “hipster-suited super-killer” seem to be venting their spleen at the wrong target, or at the right target some years too late. Instead, surely the satirical contumely of poets attempting to uncover what’s gone wrong with London should have turned their attention to the real architects of the cultural degeneration of our city and its transformation into a heritage theme-park “playground for plutocrats”: Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, the real jackals within Whitehall, none of whom are mentioned in the book.
Oliver Dixon is a poet, writer and critic who lives in London. First book of poems Human Form was published in 2013 by Penned in the Margins. Poems and reviews have appeared in the Sunday Times, the Forward Book of Poetry 2014, PN Review, New Welsh Review, Tears in the Fence, The Wolf and other places. His day-job is as a college lecturer working with students with learning disabilities. He blogs at Ictus.