One of the problems with progressive politics is that it’s difficult to reach agreement on what the most urgent problem is. For all the people who would say climate change, there is another group who would say animal rights. For everyone who finds their fuel ignited by gender politics, you will invariably get someone else saying inequality. Is it race? Historic sexual inappropriateness? Intolerance? We enter our heated claustrophobic echo chamber and we rant and we rave and – well, all of the neighbouring echo chambers get hotter and hotter and the powers that be continue to get their own way and the world gets shitter and uglier and meaner and we all grow a little more distant and a little more angry. And so it goes, to quote Kurt Vonnegut.
One of the things that gets my goat is the periodic fussing about the lack of working class voices in contemporary literature. Ahw, where are all the working class voices? the clamour goes. You hear it on Radio 4. You see it all the fucking time in the Guardian (usually written by people who have either made it or have been given a hand up by another writer who has already made it). You see anthologies start to appear, as if the rare, few working class flowers left in existence are an exhibit to be crowded around. (What you don’t tend to see a lot of is serious debate of the kind you get when a well-paid woman at the BBC bemoans the fact that she isn’t paid the same as a stupidly over-paid man – neither men nor women near the top are getting too het up about the vast number of people at the bottom of the scale, the issue is gender inequality, not actual inequality – because to talk about genuine inequality you have to have someone who the establishment is willing to accede is an expert, and who gets to be an expert when all you know is the thin end of the wedge and aren’t willing to express yourself in the acceptable tones familiar to viewers of the BBC or Sky or wherever?).
We mention this because Mick Guffan – the late Mick Guffan, we should importantly add – is a working class writer. Inner London Buddha is a posthumous collection from the ‘poet/builder’ (and please notice that: ‘poet/builder’ – not poet – ‘poet/builder’ because who the fuck can survive in the modern world without a healthy leg-up from mummy and daddy to make it easier, without a hand up from some other writerly friend of the family, without a whisper in the ear regarding an opening that will give you an in, without, perhaps crucially, living in London and going to the parties one should be seen at by opinion formers and decision makers?). What we have here are:
“One hundred poems, gleaned from numerous long out-of-print chapbooks, unpublished collections, forgotten websites and obscure literary magazines…”
Their subject matter is,
“unemployment, melancholia, The Wild Bunch, alcohol, heroin, crystal meth, sex, pornography, celibacy, Tramadol, Buddhism, James Joyce, the family, the construction industry, perverted landlords and, yes, some love for good measure…”
Many of the poems barely last half a page. “These poems,” Alan Dent, founder and editor of The Penniless Press, writes in his introduction, “come from places you don’t want to be. They are missives from the territories our culture wishes to forget…” Without reading a single Guffan poem, you can already hear the voices of the kinds of people who would dismiss them (‘ah too quickly do we say that the Bukowski-esque wallowing in depredation is the only way a working class writer can express themselves’). Those people can fuck off. Quite frankly. We don’t even want a debate (‘ah because that’s how this generation is, they have no appetite for discussion’ – again, fuck off). What we have here is the product of an authentic voice. Not the kind of authentic voice that will have the chattering classes chattering in the way they did over Nell Zink or Roberto Bolano or Joy Williams – but an authentic voice nevertheless and a voice, a working class voice we should emphasise, we suspect, given Tangerine Press’ beautiful edition, that will find its audience.
Let’s talk about the poems, shall we? The first thing we want to say is that these poems are funny. Not Roger McGough funny, but funny nevertheless. Some of the laughs are of the isn’t-life-shit, you’ve-gotta-laugh variety, yes, but some of the poems are just funny because Guffan is a funny writer. He’s a keen observer of the old human predicament. Sometimes it’s just a line – like when he describes Kerouac as being “vain as a shiny turd”, in ‘Lonesome Traveller’. Other times, it’s an entire poem (check out ‘Theory’ on p89 – if you don’t laugh out loud, there’s something wrong with you).
But he’s more than funny too. As you’d expect, he’s terrific when it comes to isolating that yearning you get when you’re trapped in the 9-5 without hope of parole:
will be workers dreaming
of a beach bar getaway
at a negligent corner
of an impossible town.”
This is a world of ‘clenching cockroaches’, of sex heard through walls so many times that it has proved to be a mad annoyance, a world of football coupons, of drunk driving to pick up your kid, of ‘Marking others’ cards’, ‘Early starts, long days, shite money’, of
“…walking your dog,
smoking your Mayfairs
gossiping at your front door
listening to your tv too loud.”
Time and again, he writes words that strike you with earnest truth, a prosaic brutality, the shit that comes from living with shit every day:
“I awaken to find
my heart is broken.
Like no other.
The alarm goes off;
I hit it
I do not want to repair hearts today.”
And, of course, we said this was posthumous, didn’t we? Because Mick is dead. Because that is what working class writers do. They die without being heard. So you can all get excited by the Guardian positing a new literary canon based upon women, but we’re more interested in the canon of writers we are losing, the canon of writers we will never hear from, the canon of phantom ghosts that only grows year on year as life gets harder for those people who don’t have a lot, who don’t have a fallback position, who aren’t exploring a bohemian lifestyle cushioned by an eventual inheritance. You can’t help but be reminded of Richard Brautigan’s library of unpublished works (from the 1971 novel, The Abortion) – a library no one is allowed to visit that only holds works that were never published. That’s where all your working class voices reside. Somebody with some money should open one of those. In the mean time, though, we can all at least take some bittersweet pleasure from the fact that these poems have seen the light of day. We’ll try not to get overly bitter about the fact that Mick is no longer with us. Such, Vonnegut might have told us, is life.
Any Cop?: There isn’t a better book than this published this month. So buy it. Treat yourself. You’ve got enough books in translation and enough books by women and enough books by established writers who can look after themselves. This is a working class voice producing writing that warrants attention. Mick won’t profit from the sales but his kids might so in addition to treating yourself to some great words you can do a good thing too. What are you waiting for?