Apr 10 2023
Poetry review – MAD PARADE: Rennie Halstead reflects on the durability of Neil Fulwood’s political poetry
It’s difficult compiling a collection of poetry at the best of times. Balancing different subjects and styles to give variety and surprise is a challenge. The difficulty is increased when the poems are political, which gives them a short shelf life. Politics is so often about an immediate issue, a moral panic stirred up by the screaming tabloid media, or the crass stupidity of a politician who really should know better.
Neil Fulwood tackles the problem of political poetry head on, reminding us that the decisions politicians make last longer than the media storm that accompanies them. The consequences feed through into everybody’s daily life, from the after-effects of Brexit or Covid to the implications of universal credit.
The poems dealing with major issues have lasted best. Fulwood’s focus on Brexit, a gift that keeps on giving to journalists and political commentators, the duplicity of politicians and the media still have resonance, as the chaos and difficulties of the Brexit aftermath continue to play out.
In the opening poem, “God Save Your Mad Parade” Fulwood links the euphoria of the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations with the decision to hold the EU referendum a fortnight later. He dissects the loyalty of confirmed royalists:
Deluge-drenched, they line the Mall, grateful for discomfort. They’re in thrall to the iron fist in the velvet glove. They’d kneel gladly and call it love.
He goes on to focus on the way the Leave campaign chose to use the event as an opportunity to wrap itself in the flag:
Street parties hosted by those who vote Leave, Little England clutching at reasons to believe. Parochialism buttered up by the WI, pomp and a big fat circumstantial lie.
He concludes that the government, through the Crown, are perpetrating a con on the British people, who may one day wake up to the truth:
And God bless the sheep still lining the Mall, God bless the delusion placating them all, God grant for Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s sake that none of their subjects suddenly wake.
He returns to the travails of Brexit in “Singing a Happy Song” and the breezy lies of a great future outside Europe:
It might seem kind of scary moving forward on our own but Theresa May’s in office and Liz is on the throne, there’ll be jobs for all us Brits again and fish’n’ chips for tea – don’t worry, sing a happy song, we’ll Brexit breezily.
Fulwood’s focus again is on the dishonesty of politicians and the media claiming Britain’s golden future is assured:
Democracy. The people spoke. So don’t make any fuss. Let’s work to take this country back to how it never was. Britain’s skies are blue again, Europe’s cold and grey – don’t worry, sing a happy song, everything’s okay.
The theme of Brexit recurs in the memorable “Poem on the Relevance, Integrity and Political Impact of Change UK/The Independence Party”. This wonderful poem has a title and an empty page.
In regard to more recent events, Fulwood turns to a different aspect of politicians’ duplicity and weasel words. “When I Went out into that Garden” picks apart Johnson’s account of the garden party that never was:
When I went out into that garden to glad-hand and to schmooze, I carefully ignored the makeshift bar and the suitcase full of booze;
He picks up Johnson’s claim that his presence wasn’t his fault:
When I went out into that garden no-one told me I shouldn’t be there so I walked round and pressed the flesh and languidly took the air;
And nails the lie:
I apologise quite profoundly for the rules I deny that I bent, I was barely even there, you know, at the garden pa - … uh, event.
The longer poems, especially the older ones, lose some impact over time. “An Address to Beelzebub”, focussing on the installation of Donald Trump in the White House, has lost some of its power. The lies and exaggeration of Trump’s installation pale into insignificance compared to later events: denying the election defeat; the January 6th attack on the Capitol and his imminent appearance in court.
Similarly “The Masque of Anarchy (Remix)” takes us through the parade of Conservative politicians coming to power after the election of 2019. Since then there have been two changes of prime minister and cabinet and the parade through the revolving door of government seems to be continuing. The poem is at its most telling in the final stanza, when Fulwood shifts his focus from politicians to the role the voters have in determining their own future:
Maybe we’ll rise like lions or fighters, Incensed at the injustices that betide us. We are many and they are few, But they own the cops, the banks and the news. Fight with the fist, the keyboard or pen. As the man said, you won’t always win, but if you don’t, you will always lose.
“Thoughts and Prayers” focuses on the 2016 Orlando shooting, when 49 people were gunned down in a night club. Fulwood comments in his notes ‘Politicians and pundits earnestly offered their thoughts and prayers but stopped short of any consideration of gun control.’
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In “Boris: A Spotter’s Guide” Fulwood adopts a children’s story book approach to the former prime minister, opening each stanza with ‘See Boris’ and ending each stanza:
Boris thinks women in the burqa look ridiculous.
He mentions Johnson’s famous deliberately tousled baby haircut and scruffy dress:
like a banshee on crystal meth would dress if it lived in a house without mirrors
before concluding ‘But it’s all right because it’s Boris, innit?’
The most memorable poems, the ones that stand the test of time, focus on abiding issues such as Brexit. That is the great strength of Fulwood’s political poetry. It catches the here and now of key events that have shaped and are still shaping our lives. They also distil the crassness, the political stupidity, and the inhumanity of some of our politicians and remind us just how bad some of our leaders are.