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Steve Spence

"Oswald’s Book of Hours" by Steve Ely, pub. Smokestack Books   82 pages   (£7.95)

Oswald was a 7th century King of Northumbria, a powerful figure, Christian evangelist who died in battle in Shropshire in 642AD. The Books of Hours were mediaeval tracts, beautifully illustrated prayers, psalms and texts from the old and new testaments. Steve Ely, described as ‘A Catholic in the tradition of John Ball, a hunter with dogs, secondary school Headteacher and revolutionary socialist’, takes these cultural icons as a starting point for a robust and somewhat macho series of poems based on class-conflict, a pre-reformation view of England, fused with references throughout the ages.  So we get modern idioms and recent political/cultural figures (Arthur Scargill, for example) mixing with Wat Tyler and a host of early subversive characters/myths, including Robenhode (Robin Hood). I guess that Oswald, though perhaps less well known to many than the Welshman Owen Glendower (I’m probably on dodgy ground here), represents a similar aspect of opposition to ‘the ruling classes’ and also underlines the North/South divide which clearly hasn’t gone away. There is a lot of meat here for a contemporary poetry book, aided by Ian McMillan’s ‘partisan’ comment that ‘In Steve Ely the North has found its voice in work that echoes Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill, the bloke in the corner shop, the Yorkshire breeze and autodidacts and pub philosophers across the region and beyond…’.     

The mixing of Latin/Anglo-Saxon/colloquial English in the headings and prefaces is interesting, aiding a cultural mash-up which also suggests a political complexity at odds with the somewhat embattled nature of the poetry which is rich in conflict, bawdiness, ripe language and often brutal reality. There is also plenty of humour, often but not always, of the dark variety:


     At the appointed time, the chief men
     of each parish rode Caesar’s streets
     to assemble at Pomfret’s thyng.
     From Castleford, Kirkby, eremitic Wragby
     and a dozen others. Around your market-rood,
     blurred by metathesis- Osgoldcross
     the jeered and raised voices of the open air witan,
     overlooked by the Old Town Hall.
     Today we dream by Giles the hermit,
     buying rhubarb and spanish and Reebok Classics,
     steak slices from Greggs and SIM-less phones;
     glassing each other on the Red Lion’s carpets,
     or keeping the faith at the Northern Soul night
     at the Ancient Borough Arms.

The scanning across time is neatly achieved as is the linked conflicting of religious and cultural traditions. There’s a feeling of a tribal unity underlying this and a consequent necessity to take sides and I’m not surprised to discover that among his other attributes Ely is a former Sunday League footballer.

Ely’s erudition is very far from that of some of our contemporary academic writers with an interest in the political and all the more interesting for that. As Andrew Duncan has pointed out in a recent essay in TITF magazine, the ‘furniture’ involved in this kind of political poetry is very similar to that used to great effect by Barry MacSweeney. Alan Morrisson is a poet who bridges the gap between the academy and the street in this sense I think, as is Sean Bonney in a rather different manner. Drew Milne’s work, by contrast, is very much coming from within a University context and is admirable and spirited in its own way. I only mention these writers here to suggest that there is a currently a lot of political poetry being produced in Britain; it is varied and enriches the overall poetry scene. Recent shifts in the political climate – for better or worse – have brought to the foreground a rich seam of political poetry which for some years was very much an underground activity. Luke Roberts’ recent book on Barry MacSweeney has some interesting things to say about this whole area of writing.


     You were a thorn in everyone’s flesh,
     for you determined to know nothing
     in this world but Christ and him crucified.
     The god-fearing goyim of the Roman galut
     knelt at his supper, giving thanks
     for their foreskins, for pork and prawns
     and the life everlasting. Those reputed
     to be pillars murmured against you,
     spreading slanders in the synagogues.
     But you held your line, in tract and epistle
     and to Kephas face to face. Christ and him crucified,
     rain or shine, from Antioch to Cadiz –
     with big Jeff and Gaz Hutsby, shouting Socialist Worker!
     under the clock at South Elmsall Market.

If Paul was (and remains, to those who know about him) a controversial figure within Christianity, one who spread the gospel and had a lot to do with its early circulation but whose ‘intransigence’ was seen by many to be a great failing then his ‘outsider’ status is something to be admired by a poet like Ely, for ‘doing the right thing’ (as you see it) is of utmost importance. Taking sides, even in
an unpopular or embattled cause’ remains an important signpost of who you are. The final lines bring the narrative into the here and now, underlying Ely’s key argument. As an aside, I can’t help wondering if the Paul of the poem as well as referring to the apostle, suggests a more secular polemicist in the figure of the late Paul Foot, who fits the bill in some ways.

In ‘Hours of the Holy Spirit’ we get the following: ‘Brian Plummer, the sainted patron / of Harlington maggot farm, entering the dumps / of coal-soiled cities, / finding truth in rat-holes, / the pit of conies, / Charlie‘s reeking earth’. This presumably, is post-miner’s strike territory yet Ely sound-checks Piers Ploughman, among other early texts and there’s a more lyrical strain in, for example, Patris sapientia, which includes a listing from the natural world as well as suggesting a backdrop of civil war which feels both historical in its reference points as well as being in the here and now. Like Tony Harrison in a similar context, Ely uses language both as a weapon and as a source of powerful beauty in its own right. These are modern poems despite the use of archaic language and Steve Ely’s work is mining an independent furrow which at its heart has a notion of community and belonging even though this feels embattled and under threat. The material in this collection is miles away from much of the poetry I’ve been reading recently but its vigour and challenge is refreshing and necessary. I’m sure I’ll be looking at his other books shortly.


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018