Poetry review – ANXIOUS CORPORALS: Paul McDonald praises the delightful anti-capitalist riffing in Alan Morrison’s ‘essay in verse’
It’s hard not to love Smokestack Books – for me they’re one of the most interesting publishers around, with their status as torchbearers for the ‘unconventional, unfashionable [and] radical’ borne out by their list, and publications like Alan Morrison’s Anxious Corporals. Certainly it’s hard to imagine this polemical, poetic history of working class culture with anything other than Smokestack’s signature red spine; although, when it comes to books, it’s blue spines that interest Morrison – specifically the blue spines of Pelican paperbacks:
Pelican – so named by serendipity when publisher Allen Lane Overheard a man at a bookstall mistakenly ask for ‘one of Those Pelican books’ when he meant Penguin of course – Tipped its first title off the production line in pale blue spine: George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism – a sixpenny Salvation of mankind, to paraphrase its author’s enraptured Pitch… [II, 13]
For Morrison, Pelicans symbolise a lost working class desire for intellectual self-improvement, which is the principal focus of this 162 page ‘essay in verse’. Splitting into twenty five cantos, it opens with an indictment of the current working class myopia – an ‘ectopic proletariat’ seduced and intellectually enfeebled by the specious allure of capitalism:
Misplaced in multiples of patchwork overlaps from cash- Strapped and poverty-trapped working poor to tip-of- The-slagheap grasping aspiration – O what hope for red roses To grow among the thorns of red-top-hypnotised, populist- Supporting proles, working-class Faragistes, Workington 'Gammons', purple-rinse reactionaries, blue collar Conservatives, proletarian Tories (Old Benjamin Disraeli’s ‘Angels in Marble’ coming back to haunt us through Poltergeist psephologists, now Boris's blue collars, his batmen Bootscrapers), who mostly think they’re petit-bourgeois – [I, 9]
Morrison laments the demise of intellectual curiosity among the lower classes, and their potential for critical thinking. He identifies a lost penchant for self-education with a particular character type – ‘Anxious Corporals’, a term first coined by Arthur Koestler in the mid-twentieth century. It denotes servicemen with a ‘thirst for intellectual sustenance’, required less for material self-advancement than to ‘satisfy some / vitamin deficiency of the mind’ [XI, 63]. The type transferred to civvy street, ‘Out of uniforms into muftis, incorporating the lower ranks / Of the middle classes, but particularly the upper-working / Class, skilled trades and blue collars, shop stewards and / Reps’ [XI, 64]. Such autodidacts were intellectually autonomous, with minds more capable of ideological subversion:
Knowledge-hungry thought-guerrillas, unarmed paper armies Scavenging for knowledge off-campus from academies, Rusticating outside rusting institutions, such demand was There for mutual improvement overturning the unintelligent Margarine of ‘yellow press’ matter, tabloids’ butter- Substitutes, ‘Sunny’ Harmsworth’s Daily Mail (inveterate Barometer of lower-middle-class Villadom), Tit-Bits, Answers, Readers’ Digest; an incipient curiousness Outstripping supply of tepid potboilers… [I, 10]
Morrison explores this theme of working class self-improvement within a layered and discursive history of class in the UK, quoting extensively from several classic works on the subject – books like Walter Gallichan’s The Blight of Respectability (1897), David Lockwood’s The Blackcoated Worker (1958), and particularly Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), which was itself a bestselling Pelican through the 1960s and beyond. It’s a scissors-and-paste aesthetic in parts, but an effective one, particularly when served by the rich and lyrical language of a theorist like Hoggart, whose critique of mass culture underpins much of the middle section of the book. Among other things, he uses Hoggart to explore the consequences of ‘passive receptiveness ‘To synthetic culture and intellectually-vetted entertainments’:
'We can soon put ourselves in a position in which we lie back ‘With our mouths open, whilst we are fed by pipe-line… from a Bottomless cornucopia manipulated by the anonymous ‘Them’’ [XII, 76]
Quotations are plentiful (scrupulously demarcated by quote marks and italics), with Morrison providing perceptive commentary on their relevance, and, with the likes of Hoggart, their prescience. In this sense the poem is very much like an essay, developing a coherent argument, whilst retaining a freewheeling feel, punctuated by delightful anti-capitalist riffing: impassioned, and unapologetically partisan, it often reminded me of Ed Sanders’ exuberant, multi-volume, America: A History in Verse.
For Morrison, the working class thirst for knowledge was eroded partly by Thatcherite philistinism, and partly by a postmodern relativism which ‘scooped out the point / from expression and criticism in order to try and prove ‘Everything is relative, ultimately subjective, intrinsically / Ironic, endlessly reductive’ [XXIV, 145]. Such unfavourable cultural conditions led to Pelican’s demise in 1990, with ‘its 2,878th title, William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Siezure of Power [XXIV, 144]. Doubtless you’ve spotted the irony.
Morrison is characteristically cynical about Penguin’s decision to reintroduce the Pelican imprint in 2014:
...Will contemporary Pelicans have such A common place reach or will they simply fill a niche? As Paul Laity speculated in a Guardian piece, ‘No doubt Penguin’s Aim is to capitalise on the now-fetishised Pelican brand’, just As it has on its own brand’s iconic designs reproduced on Mugs, coasters, postcards, tea-towels… [XXV, 149]
One can’t help but feel that Morrison’s cynicism is well founded. The good news is that so many blue Pelicans were published between 1936 and 1990 that there’s an inexhaustible second hand supply; indeed, Morrison, in a utopian moment, envisions ‘pop up Pelican Universities’ that might ‘Furnish disenfranchised minds’, offering ‘an alternative world view to conventional education’ [XXIV, 147]. I like the idea, although I’d also encourage people to supplement their blue spine education with a few red spines along the way: Anxious Corporals is an excellent place to start.