Nick Cooke considers Ruth O’Callaghan’s ambitious poetic meditation on London’s immigrants
This far-reaching meditation on London immigrant experience begins by pointing up the importance of viewpoint, be it authorial or societal:
How shall we frame this city? Wide-lensed to incorporate the Abbey and St Paul’s. No! Swing to vertical for the corporate Shard. (‘Camera’)
Having adroitly established global business as the city’s (or at least the City’s) modern-day religion, O’Callaghan identifies the main focus of her attention, the “disregarded”, an increasingly differentiated group:
Then regard the indigenous white. Or Paddy…Or Mohammed.
One feels these names are selected more as a form of shorthand identification of the immigrants’ countries or cultures, as opposed to the dismissive insults historically thrown out by some sections of the indigenous population. However, the terse enaction of accusatory finger-pointing ensures that the pejorative associations linger in the background, like the often unspoken but deeply-rooted prejudices that immigrants have faced throughout the ages.
As this nine-page poem progresses, echoes of ‘The Waste Land’ make us reflect how London has moved on – and yet perhaps has not – since Eliot’s day:
As yet the holy host of sun has not yet risen on the contiguity of bodies, hooded faces hidden disgorged from doorways opening inward.
But in the face of degradation emerges an ever more urgent resistance and resolution:
He would. He would walk. Fast. Walk fast though perfidious light loops his legs, entangles, though breath bursts in his chest, blocks mouth (…) Though damned, even though damned, he will walk.
The wording suggests Macbeth (“Yet will I try the last….And damned be he who first cries ‘Hold, enough!’”), but the poem’s brave soul is in a hell on earth rather than a future inferno. Perhaps a closer parallel would be Beckett’s Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
We are soon taken back in time, to the indigenous experience as seen through the prism of two World Wars, with the prose piece ‘Donna’ capturing the agonies and indignities suffered by the speaker’s father – “gas, the stench of his trench foot, amputated, uncompensated by hand-propelled wheelchair, adapted, left hand drive, his right lost to a friendly grenade” – while ‘Home Guard’ paints a scene of geriatric despair, as if to intimate that the whole nation, and its imperialistic culture, have grown colourless and sclerotic:
Here comes the other army, the elderly beige dragging cloth shopping bags past a gape where houses stood, twisted as the stoop of old women intent on day-hardened bread.
The way in which “gap” becomes “gape” skilfully suggests the vacant stares of stunned astonishment on the faces of people witnessing the destruction of the Blitz. But the poem also points forward to the collection’s next phase, dealing with post-war Irish immigration:
Mother Copage, curlers accordion-pleated, scoops the last bag of broken from under Siobhan O’Flaherty’s outstretched hand, a dried-mud smile cracks her face, scorns, May your daughter never marry a navvie.
The section entitled ‘Migrations’ underlines the lowest-of-the-low social status of this new group, with a neo-Joycean character named Finbarr Flynn O’Brien, himself a former navvy, recalling the infamous rental advertisements of the period, as he whimsically ponders “how the Irish still maintain their position below dogs and now blacks” (‘Un- Under’). This contemptuous disrespect is defiantly countered, as O’Callaghan flags up the nature and extent of the toil undertaken by the often physically ill-equipped motorway and underground passage builders –
And here he is, hod flung careless across a scrawn of shoulder, his toothless whistle He came to be a soldier, a soldier He came to be a soldier in McAlpine’s Fusiliers (‘Siobhan’) –
with that refrain deriving from a contemporary song in which the fusiliers are an army of navvies. And as if by way of substantiating the poem’s next line, which encapsulates the abiding resilient spirit of the whole book – “Broken-backed, broken hearted, but never broken” – this section goes on to reveal the educational self-help philosophy that grew up among the Irish community, in search of integration and upward mobility. Finbarr develops a taste for the poetry and philosophy of Beckett, and O’Callaghan accordingly demonstrates her admirable range of style by producing an apparently effortless pastiche:
… is timing in the anal rejection of the egg reliant upon Galilean movement removing responsibility from God’s own creature specifically constructed for the purpose (…)? (‘Finbarr Flynn Reads Beckett’s Whoroscope’)
The book’s second half moves onto the Windrush generation, at one point memorably juxtaposing a possibly self-ironic reflectivity redolent of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ with snatches of Caribbean speech. The use of imagined vernacular may trouble some readers, at this time of concerns over appropriation, although my own caveats were more around points when the imitation veered towards the inauthentically ungrammatical:
I have travelled on open seas, forged a new philosophy to bring joy and strength to those who labour endlessly. Mah name Elizabeth after de mudder fo John Baptist. No de mudder fo her chile. She no like his doo-doo. Ah gets all de best jobs! Ah love him but he stink so! (‘My Monte Rosa Bemoans Transporting Elizabeth’)
Personally I have never heard a West Indian, of any generation, say “She no like” or “Ah gets”, still less refer to excrement as “doo-doo”, but O’Callaghan’s ear improves towards the end, where the anticlimactic oppression of so many immigrant lives is more credibly expressed in Elizabeth’s final speech:
So dis is de better life? De rain it never stop. De house ain’t no home. Half a room, de cooker on de landing two floors below nex’ de toilet. Mah work it never stop.
The final sections bring us into the modern era, shedding light first on more welcome instances of social progress – such as the fact that bus travellers can now witness same-sex, bi-racial couples holding hands in the London streets – but then on the reactionary forces behind the Brexit vote, making a point of skewering Nigel Farage (in arguably somewhat clunking fashion) for
promising economic emancipation once blacks, browns and any frigging-johnny-foreigner shade in between were sent back so we could reclaim those same jobs that we had all disdained to do (‘Aftermath’).
Although that passage indicates that O’Callaghan’s righteous anger sometimes sparks a tendency to preach to the very probably converted, she deserves much credit overall for a work that shows both great humanity and considerable technical ambition, in which she stretches herself at every turn, refusing to rest on comfort-zone laurels.
An intriguing one-line final section, ‘Autopsy’, implies collateral fallout from the integration process, in the form of dead languages:
…and what of that no longer spoken?
The tantalising rhetorical-question postscript made me wonder if that potentially rich theme, which inspired one of Pinter’s most haunting plays, might be the focus of a future O’Callaghan collection. If so, it should prove every bit as stimulating and provocative as this one.