Guest Review: Muckle On Mitchell

John Muckle reviews

You’d have go be a real bastard to sneer at a poem about ‘Peace and Pancakes’ written for a picnic organised by The Woodcraft Folk – so I won’t be doing that. Nor will I be rehearsing Adrian Mitchell’s role in the famous Albert Hall ‘Wholly Communion’ gig in 1965, where, on film at least, a ramblingly prophetic Allen Ginsberg is upstaged by the singing ringing tones of ‘To Whom It May Concern’, his powerful anti-Vietnam poem: ‘So fill my ears with silver/Stick my legs in plaster/Tell me lies about Vietnam’. It’s a bitterly ironic nursery rhyme, about being both privileged and misinformed. This final book, completed shortly before his death in late 2008, duly repeats that poem in a ‘Remix’ version, showing his poetry and its agitprop concerns to have changed not a jot in the intervening forty years.

Prince Harry is home from Afghanistan.
He flew out a Twerp, but he flies back a Man.
Do you feel safer now he is back?
Or should all of the Royals be sent to Iraq?

(‘The War on Terror, Chapter 13’)

Old age didn’t dim his political fire, modify his style, or sap the formidable energy, reassuring ease and sometimes lightness of touch of his verses. If only there’d been a lot more hippie socialists, and they had won somehow, instead of just coming to sound ridiculously out of touch. But Mitchell was alert to the potential absurdities of his position, or perceptions of it, and doesn’t usually sound ridiculous except on purpose. The underlying theme of this book, apart from plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose, is how to live well in a state of permanent opposition: to celebrate positive values – and take pleasure in scoring gleeful points against your permanent enemies. Along with some personal losses, he mourns ‘the soul of the Labour Party’, berates Blairism and looks forward with weary dread to a version of the present government:

Buy yourself a seat in the House of Pretence
Find the number in the Yellow Pages
Rent Arthur’s Round Table for your Conference
Welcome to the Middle Ages

We’re going to have another Old Etonian
As her majesty’s PM
While New Labour melts into a pool
Of ineffectual intellectual phlegm

(‘More Friends’)

Some newer targets include Facebook (‘The Meaning of My Life’) and reality television (‘The Five Doors’ or ‘Mucus Membrane’s TV Special’), and usually he is right on target, if homiletic, and even if an air of shooting gaudy fish in barrels of clear rainwater threatens to render these poems scarcely less banal than many of their targets, they are passionate. There is point, and truth, in his prescriptions, and it takes more than simplicity to administer them with this biblical starkness:

      all gold is fool’s gold.
out of the lying grounds of the world
      up comes the gold
grinning like a murderer.

(‘Nothing Feels As Good As Gold’)

But there is also something knowingly simplistic in his outlook. It is a kind of secular quasi-religious leftism one element of which is to blame religion, or God, for all human conflicts and cruelties (‘The Boy-Sty’ puts the blame for the Cain/Abel case on poor parenting and Him Upstairs), suggesting that human nature itself is innately good (in ‘The Baby on the Pavement’ who wouldn’t pick up a baby left on the pavement?) and that one day ‘we’ might triumph if only all the nasty politicians and priests could be quelled or ignored. You sense that if he didn’t quite believe this anymore, he is going to valiantly continue proclaiming it. Elsewhere he speaks up for monsters who got a bad press (‘Grendel’s Groove’ is a tour de force) and indulges in a some populist bardolatry in ‘The Plays What I Wrote by Shakespeare’, a doggerel prospectus for ‘our greatest poet’. Mitchell likes some national institutions, Eng. Lit., Ivor Cutler, old jazz, and Eric Satie, and this volume also includes a number of heartfelt, touching elegies for departed friends as well as a birthday ode for his illustrator, the splenetic Ralph Steadman, who provides a dark counterpoint to many of Mitchell’s sunnier melodies.
Actually, his celebratory poems are his most touching – hymns to the persistence of memory, deft and delicate tributes to loving parents, to friendships, and ‘River Notes’, which lifts out of doggerel into a celebration of rivers as ‘walking water’ reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Typically he is a producer of childlike allegories which charm while you’re reading them – mainly for their clarity and good intentions – but can leave you feeling a bit uneasy and dissatisfied. And yet … there is something whole and wholesome about Adrian Mitchell’s political vision. Will these poems convince and inspire future generations? Maybe not, but he was obviously writing for now. If there is hope, it lies in the Woodcraft Folk.
Perhaps the most substantial and powerful new poem here is ‘The Song of the Great Crack’, an improvisation on ‘Shibboleth’, the engineered crack in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall created by Colombian artist Doris Saleedo to represent the war between rich and poor. Mitchell is clearly inspired by this work and treats it as a Sibylline cleft that whispers of everything he has ever cared about, and ‘all the grief of the world’:

and the great crack
is Lethe the river of forgetfulness
which the mass media drinks each night
to wash away the past

and the great crack
is the cry of massacred innocents
poor hungry raped or murdered

and the great crack
is the handwriting of an alien
whose love letter to the human race says:
meme meme tekel upharsin
you have been weighed in the balance
and found wanting

and the great crack
is despair
that useless emotion
which sometimes threatens
to flood the mind