The giraffe of austerity speaks

Reading a book of poems by Ian McMillan is like talking with an old friend. (I can even hear that sentence in his voice, which of course to the sorts of people who like that kind of thing is so familiar from his Radio 4 programme, The Verb.)

So when I saw that he had a new pamphlet of poems out I was pleased. And when I heard that That’s Not a Fishing Boat, It’s a Giraffe was Responses to Austerity, I immediately contacted Smith|Doorstop, who publish it. If that’s not my subject, after being like ‘the Girl Forrest Gump of Austerity’ all the way from 2011 to now, I don’t know what is. My fortunes have been more or less decided by the Conservative government’s favourite policy ever since they implemented it: I lost my job in the cuts, in the so-called Bonfire of the Quangos, and just took it from there, straight into the so-called New Precariat.

In a nice twist, because when they first implemented ‘the new austerity’ I was doing communications and social media in the Energy Saving Trust — itself a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation — I was actually at my desk trying to interpret it for our audiences. We wrote fairly lighthearted blog posts about how people saved water and energy during the War, invited readers to send pictures of themselves wearing jumpers in the office, and that sort of thing. A few months later the news came that EST was going to lose over half its funding, was going to turn itself into a lean, mean B2B consultancy machine, and was going to have to drop over half its staff.

Hello real world!

Since then, for those who haven’t been reading A Far Cry from Hackney, I will just say that — since I lost my flat in 2018 to a 45% rent increase and a failure to bounce back the decimation of my old sector, particularly of my work role within it — well, you can just call me Forrestina. I’ve been gentrified out of London, I spent months sofa-surfing and was then saved by a bell, and I’m now rather gingerly living outside London for practically the first time ever. I’m lucky not to be trapped in a temporary accommodation unit in a disused office block somewhere just outside Birmingham.

In top Forrestina style, I even turned around at a book launch party one night and found myself being chatted to by Boris Johnson’s dad, Stanley.

That's Not a Fishing Boat, It's a Giraffe: Responses to Austerity

So you can imagine that I was intensely interested to see this pamphlet. And rightly so. I sometimes feel that Ian McMillan’s radio persona, the avuncular humour and Barnsley drawl, make him so approachable, so much a great listen in the car or whatever, that people forget what a seriously good poet he is.

There is a massive vogue for political poetry at the moment, of course. At our particular moment, to those of us not completely out of touch with developments everything feels political. And we know what we think about things, politically, so everybody has a lot to say. This is kind of as it should be. And of course, when people are really lost for words — even now, in digi-tele-image culture, as well as places and times when we’re not allowed to say anything straight out — we reach for poetry.

But so much political poetry is about the certainty that perforce remains unexpressed. One of the things I generally go to poetry for is the expression — embodiment and resolution, maybe — of uncertainty. The secret of a lyric poem is that it’s usually made of two things, not one. An opinion or a reaction to something isn’t enough: you need complication — something to spark off something else, and make a new spark. The new spark is the poem. The poems in Ian McMillan’s pamphlet embody uncertainty in several different ways, all of them fruitful.

In ‘Eight Poems Translated from a Lost Language’, images present themselves one at a time in aphoristic, haiku-ish bursts: ‘The banks of steel flowers… rusting’, ‘unbuilt wall’, ‘uncarried infant in the arms of the uncle’. These are fleeting snapshots of images we carry in our minds. But ‘milk seethes/ in bottles’. ‘The sunrise reminds us/that nothing is permanent’. And ‘the moon is in the well’. We’re not allowed to be always quite sure what we’re seeing, or why; we just know it’s there. (There’s humour, too, but I try to observe a no-spoilers policy.)

They’re written from observation, of course. The poet spends a lot of time on trains and buses. ‘Platform 2’, from ‘Our Transport Correspondent Speaks’, is mainly notes about other passengers. What do we know about each other? Even with ‘train intimacy’? ‘I’ll tell you this. Keith shouldn’t be allowed near one of those’.

In ‘Plain’, ‘Each hotel bar is a cardboard cutout of loneliness’. There are reports here from the barber shop, the opticians, the charity shop, the kitchen, ‘The Food Bank in the Primary School’. It’s all recognisable, including the bewilderment. Looking, for Ian McMillan, involves questions: what am I seeing? What does this mean? And, because this is a book about living inside austerity, not telling us about it, many of these questions are allowed to remain unanswered. As the joke goes, when asked whether he thought the French Revolution had been a success, Zhou Enlai replied, ‘It’s too soon to tell’. We can only look, and many of the images in this collection recur in subtle ways, from poem to poem, imposing themselves on us only gradually.

Some of the poems are about memory; ‘Covent Garden and the Bald-Headed Bloke in the T-Shirt’ is funny, but with a sucker punch. Punched by your uncle. ‘Uncle Charlie’s Moon’, a character sketch in a single moment across time, is tender and heartbreaking.

There is satire, too, of course. There’s the characteristic McMillan surreal imagery, as in ‘Fruit Solar System’; we can’t quite believe anything, can we? the mysteries are so much bigger than us. ‘Jupiter is a grapefruit/ But a grapefruit so big you’d have to get/ your mate Harry to help you carry it home.’ There’s time travel, even aside from the time travel of memory.

My favourite two, I think, involve switches: the fiendishly clever and very beautiful ‘Penny’ (‘Monocle-gleam on the pavement,/ Fallen moon. Joyce bent to grab it…’) and one about a tin of baked beans — and I’ll give no spoilers there.

These poems occupy a dreamlike space, on the whole, emitting the same air of unreality that my friends and I all say we are feeling all the time lately. Several feel as if they might be written from dreams, which are an inherently uncertain space. ‘My Austerity Face’ is Cubist. In ‘Somebody Spoke and’, images float in and then out again and all you know is that nobody knows. And the pamphlet ends with a short prose piece called ‘Three Dreams Rendered Prosaically’ — presumably as a transliteration from their natural language, poetry. But these dreams feel almost more realistic than the ones about just being in the world: ‘Spokesman stops speaking. Is overcome with emotion. Whether laughter or tears is difficult to tell. Wipes his eyes with his pocket square. Nice touch that’.

In short, the pamphlet feels like a whole book. Order it from The Poetry Business for a quite affordable £5.

Previous post:

Next post: