Handsworth Songs – Summer 2012 -a response to UK Uprisings 1981

The UK “Riots was still very raw for me. I had grown increasingly agitated by the way the online, bar, train/bus, media and street debate had and has been raging. My sentiment had more to do with the fact that I couldn’t understand why my perspective and emotion was landing on the side of the “rioters”. Even the term “rioter” was niggling me. It seemed to automatically say “the bad guys”, it criminalises a group of people the moment the word hit the ear or the eye without them having had a a chance to explain why or how this drastic destructive action was considered an option to get a point across.
I then began to feel nervous that I was unable to write poetry about it as I was in conflict about some of the things I was seeing on the news that were out of order yet motivated by something. I remember on the 29th September Troy Davis was killed by the state of Minneapolis Justice system. I posted on Facebook, how I had no words and couldn’t I have my feeling first, as a friend had said “how could you be a poet with no words!?”. Something deep stirred inside when these “riots” kicked off and it had something to do with having grown up with my eyes wide open to the inequalities in society that directly effected the psyche, that make peole do things that seem totally irrational. The power of injustice and inequality is forever downplayed and needs to be explored rather than shouted down just to sell a political agenda and newspapers.

Then the disaffection and lack of belonging came into play as the race narrative was batted about the media arena knotted in with the fetisization of “feral youth” rhetoric. My irritation with was blurring my creative process. There was so much conflicting information and opinion flying across the country, I was as confused as the bees whose homing instincts are now confused by the wireless network microwaves crowding the atmosphere. I could not navigate my way to the page.

So it was on my when I was commissioned by Film Africa 2011 to write a piece in response to Menelik Shabazz‘s  HANDSWORTH SONGS (watch on YouTube), I managed to have a place to start. This commission became a beacon, a lighthouse in the murky rhetoric, recrimination and pontificating that blocked my view to the responsive poetry I knew I wanted to write.

HANDSWORTH SONGS made it so obvious. The film is an insightful and poetic response to the UK “riots” of 1981 in Handsworth, Birmingham, with thought provoking raw footage where the ‘discontent’ in society manifested itself as “bringing the issue to the street”, as did the new generation in response to the ‘austerity measures’ of the new government on 2009, 10, 11. And that’s me, speculating as when the discontent was reaching boiling point.

I had to write about one man’s dreams of settlement, the turbulent effects of migration, trust and mistrust and uncomfortable violent change that illustrates a country broiling in historical denial and resistant awakening.

I highly recommend a watch of the film.

Even Dogs Have a Place in the World

We were coughing in the dust
from the fall out of your war, anyway
like some kind of anti-fairy dust,
your uncertain future settled as unemployment
and division on our Caribbean mountain,
some had worn british uniforms before,
Some said we had no business in a white mans war
Them’s the ones who kept score
when You called us to you
Posters in bold font

We quietly study our passport by candle light
And inform lovers in sonorous appeasing whispers
and parents with puffed up chests what our
Desire wanted us to do

And we came like flotillas of reprieve
The hulls fashioned from our skin, viscid with the grit of determination
“Forward, to rebuild the Motherland!”
Can’t always look this gift horse in the mouth
My ticket was earned

We came to the mother country, proving
Your civilizing had not gone to waste
And you set me the task of patching up holes torn
By the shrapnel of global upheaval, the history of the planet shifting
In its nest of isms and dastardly dictatorships

And we all lean leeward
into the winds of change
and after 3 weeks on the water
I sight my future on the dark blue back of the sea
I recognize the shape of an island when
I see one

We send for our children
who ride the tide of our dreams
like bundles of pre-packed self reliance
Wrapped in the flags of our islands
rubber stamped with a british seal

And for a few shillings and maybe a can of corned beef
I hand over my future to your care, gurgling fresh
His smiles, bright bites of potential

I hand my children over to your care
comforted that you will configure their grey matter
to the education curriculum of the academic minds
that made this country great, supplement their learning
of good citizenship, enforce the belief that hard work
is the rule of thumb

It doesn’t take long before I learn
– at role call, at the bus depot, on the factory floor, in the nurses quarters –
that I am to swallow the cold morning chill
with icy pregnant silences, venomous vapour laden
with racial slurs and recriminations
they find their way my ears, like riled homing pigeons
“The country is going to the dogs.”

It doesn’t take long, 10 years on
When the jobs become slim
And the streets are emaciated, fat with resentment
It doesn’t take long before the dis-ease
finds it racist tongue flicking out of its head
as the teddy boys try to stomp on the soft suede
of my Notting Hill blues, flicking glares like knives
bike chains and crow bars beating the drum of my skin
And the sparks fly as the gears of deprivation grind

The flame is lit
our pride finds a deeper fire
as fists fuse with lick of the flame
defending our right to be seen as human, along with the Irishman
even dogs have a place in the world.
But Us – lowly gladiators in a decadent  empires arena
Divide and conquer.

It doesn’t take long, 20 years on
When a wave of police officers come to our doors
Our child’s potential broken between them
I had to see the beating first hand to understand,
To feel why the road is littered with bottle, brick
And burnt out carcass of cars
and I had to hear the creaking bones
of my sad eyed dreams standing, mortified
between the front line and the riot shields
them same bones that “breathed life into this land”

and while the dred beat roiled the hurricane
calypso sprang like a haunting jangle of discordant chimes
in the wily winds of change
as the steelpan sang a flattened 5th – the devils note
a blue note, a black note, the one that spoke
to my dissatisfaction, discontent and disillusionment

The scuttling press camera’s flashed like deranged fireflies
grotesque in their greed for a headline
“Rioting Mob on Rampage”, “The Bloody Battle Ground”, “Riot of death”
and the photo of the  ivory baby in the ugly pram
pushed by a fair home-grown maid
taunts the hate out of the ashes, not the tolerance.

It doesn’t take long, just 20 years on when
Our great grand child snaps open a newspaper
between thumb blurs on his mobile phone
and reads the headline,
for the first week of a limping August Summer
“the Rule of the Mob”, “ The Battle for London”, “London’s Burning”
in bold font

You don’t know what its like out there Granddad.

The first time I got stopped by the police
There was 5 of them
And they covered up their numbers
Its not the first thing you look for.

There was 3 of us
He was ic3. Black male.

Daz white shirts, buckles and big shoes

Grey hoodie, back pack and trainers

They came out of no where

We asked him where he had been
What was he doing in the area

I was coming back from Auntie Jeanettes
I just picked up the money for the shopping
For my Cerise’s wedding

He was carrying money beyond
what a 12 year old should have
If he was 12

On road the code is “stand your ground”
Or if it the situation is getting peak,
you know, tense, treat them like a wild animal –
maintain eye contact and back away slowly

These youths run errands for dealers
All the time, you see. I mean, they’re feral

I told them all they wanted know
No matter what I said, they weren’ ‘aving it
It was the look in one of themz eyes

I’ve been doing this job for 6 years
Their eyes always tell you when they’re lying

they cuffed me, search me,
took me to the station, kept me for 4 hours
No charges nothing

We detain because there are specific procedures
successfully bringing levels of violent and criminal behaviour down
And we target certain areas pertaining to this illegal activity

It was when they told me to take
my trousers down…
It’s just to shame you, innit, that’s why
Its cos that’s what they do. Ain’t more complicated than that…

That’s what they do…

We see how his fallen crest,
his coquettishness youth, drags
weighted with the tediousness of the re-run
And I think about the times we handed them
over to you, thinking you were taking care

What do you see when you look upon our children?
Not me or the ghosts of my dreams
that walk at his shoulders
And we look into all their eyes to connect
the world of our leaving and arriving
to the time or their rootedness
That does not belong

And not even after the death of mothers
and other sons in your hands
Can I defend you, Mother Country?
What can I do? Except hand them
this flame, the one that kept me alive

Make it burn out the eyes of their dispossession
Singe the throats of a desperate and needy system.
Let it be a beacon that guides
when all the other candles have gone out.

.Written by Zena Edwards©


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