BY Marek Sullivan in Opinion | 23 SEP 19
Featured in
Issue 206

Jay Bernard’s Explosive Poetry and the Long Shadow of Racism in Britain

‘Surge’ finds uneasy resonances between the 1981 New Cross fire and more recent tragedies

BY Marek Sullivan in Opinion | 23 SEP 19

Syd Shelton, Darcus Howe standing on a toilet block in Clifton Rise, Lewisham, addressing a crowd of anti-National Front demonstrators, 1977. Courtesy: © Syd Shelton

Speaking in the House of Commons on 11 February 1981, Jill Knight, Conservative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, raised concerns over West Indian ‘all-night parties’ or ‘shebeens’. Specifically, she highlighted an 11-day event within her constituency during which ‘the harassment, noise and fear that […] constituents had to endure was utterly intolerable’. In Knight’s description: ‘There was a seething mass of people, 99 percent of whom were of the Rastafarian type, who can look a little frightening. Certainly, their numbers were frightening.’

Knight’s subsequent reference to ‘the tragic consequences of a similar party only two or three weeks ago’, might charitably be attributed to a lack of tact. In the early hours of Sunday 18 January, just 24 days before the Commons debate, a fire blazed through the terraced house at 439 New Cross Road, Deptford, killing 13 people aged 14 to 22. They had gathered there for a joint birthday party organized by Yvonne Ruddock (16) and Angela Jackson (18). The police had been called about a noise disturbance.

Initial investigations centred on arson. A white man was observed throwing something at the building and driving away in an Austin Princess. South-east London was a known National Front stronghold with a history of violence against West Indian communities. The Moonshot Club in New Cross had been firebombed in 1977. The Albany theatre, a well-known local venue for anti-racist events, was burned down the following year. Yet, the initial focus on racial aggravation quickly gave way to an alternative theory attributing the fire to victim Wesley Thompson. According to the official line, Thompson became involved in an altercation, set fire to the downstairs sofa and climbed upstairs where he was burned to death. Party-goers who initially denied witnessing a fight altered their accounts following police questioning. After 38 years and two inconclusive inquests, the cause of the fire remains unestablished.

Jay Bernard, Surge, 2019. Courtesy: Penguin Random House 

Released in the UK in June, Surge is part archaeology, part political exhumation, part re-envisioning of the events at New Cross. It is Jay Bernard’s fourth collection of poetry, following Your Sign Is Cuckoo, Girl (2008), English Breakfast (2013) and 2016’s mind-bending trip through Arthurian legend, The Red and Yellow Nothing, a 34-page pamphlet that sealed Bernard’s reputation as a major new force in British poetry. Following the peregrinations of Morien, an apocryphal Moorish knight of indeterminate gender and sexuality, The Red and Yellow Nothing teems with voices old and new, echoes from the mytho-nationalist past and present, and evocations of the historical contingency of race. Its exuberant language treads a mischievous line between reverence and disdain, sending up British mythology with blood, shit, queer sex and violence.

Surge is an altogether different offering. The poems here seethe with unspoken rage and acerbity; they read like thinned-out paraffin, something on the cusp of explosion. There are echoes of Arthurian song, for example, in the repetition of ‘-o’ in the poem ‘Ark’: ‘Mi brudda dead, mi brudda dead, mi brudda dead-o’ (as in the opening poem of The Red and Yellow Nothing: ‘in the land before the story-o / Blue grows the darkness-o’). And Bernard’s uncanny ability to wield language like a medieval cudgel is still on show. But Surge is, on the whole, more restrained, pithier, as in the first four lines of its opening poem, ‘Arrival’:

     remember we were brought here
from the clear water of our dreams
     that we might be named, numbered
and forgotten
       that we were made visible that we
might be looked on with contempt
       that they gave us their first and last
names that we might be called wogs

We arrive at the beginning – already an end – suggesting displacement, pilgrimage and cyclicality. As Bernard explains in the introduction, the archives of the George Padmore Institute, where they began work on Surge while poet-in-residence in 2016, became ‘a mirror of the present, a much-needed instruction manual to navigate what felt like the repetition of history’. Bernard’s residency came just after the UK voted to leave the European Union. One year later, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. The sense of history repeating must have been overwhelming, but even New Cross had its own obvious precedent. When Brixton’s Unity Bookshop burned down in 1973, Farrukh Dhondy, a leading member of the UK Black Panthers, was sleeping upstairs. As he later recounted: ‘The fire chief definitely came to me and said, “You’ve been set on fire; there’s a petrol bomb.” Yes, a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass […] One neighbour said that it was a motorcyclist who chucked the bomb and moved on, so nothing ever happened, no prosecutions took place and the place was a shell, it was burnt out, that was the story.’

Jay Bernard, 2019. Courtesy: Penguin Random House 

Some of the most powerful poems in Surge are the most finespun. ‘Harbour’ speaks in the voice of a ghost child going over the events of 18 January, drawing the reader into a world of whispers: ‘my voice / it was so weak, so sickened, / so grieved, / my voice it was so weak / and it broke in the heat’. Here, understatement and silence build to a ravaging conclusion, in which the ghost calls out hopelessly to Yvonne and her friends to jump, jump. It is not clear who the ghost is – one of the New Cross 13 or a previous arson victim from the area; surely that is part of the point.

Several of the poems incorporate patois. Others follow the West Indian music rhythms that caused Knight such anxiety. In live performances of ‘Songbook’ – Bernard’s homage to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘New Crass Massahkah’ (1981) – the author sings the words, and slows down the final chorus to a devastating stop, amplifying the sense of stuttering closure implied by the last line: ‘Me seh ah one half fahwahd an ah one halfback’. The establishment, then gradual disruption, of a dancehall rhythm (the last line is spoken after several seconds of silence) is another example of Bernard’s uncanny ability to tap into readers’ or listeners’ expectations and generate new meanings through a frustrated desire for wholeness. Surge grew out of Surge: Side A, a live poetry performance which won the Ted Hughes Award in 2017. Although described as a single work, each iteration of Side A collated new elements and discarded others. When I saw Bernard perform in 2018, they asked members of the audience to order the event by reading out randomly distributed numbers, each assigned to an element of the piece. The resulting assemblage – incorporating references to Robocop, the rapper Silver Bullet and feminist activism – felt at once new, unfinished, unbegun and horribly familiar.

In the introduction to The Red and Yellow Nothing, Bernard writes: ‘The particular history that produced the author that reproduces [Morien] is not inevitable’. If The Red and Yellow Nothing is a story of incidence and contingency – a tacit recounting of the construction of race, gender and sexuality – Surge is a story of inexorable, intentional tragedy, based upon a lie. Taken together, the two collections present a brutal indictment of Britain’s racist history and hypocrisy in the face of the facts. Look, Bernard seems to be saying, how easily race appears intrinsic, when its entire history is one of factual manipulation and ulterior motives. Look how difficult it is to condemn white power when collective responsibility is beyond denial. How we switch between these two modes – certainty and doubt, crude generalizations and calls for nuance or further inquiry – lies at the heart of Surge’s vacillation between phantoms and facts. Bernard’s persistent question drills down, line by line, into Britain’s dark subconscious. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 206 with the headline ‘A Little Frightening’.

Marek Sullivan is a joiner and writer living in Bristol, UK. His first critical study, Secular Assemblages, will be published by Bloomsbury early next year.