David Betteridge

David Betteridge

David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.

Slave Songs & Symphonies
Thursday, 22 December 2016 13:47

Slave Songs and Symphonies

Published in Our Publications

Poems by David Betteridge
Drawings by Bob Starrett

£5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p) 48 pp ISBN 978 1907 464164

 

Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour.

David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics.

Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict.

Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 14:55

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge reviews Jim Aitken's latest collection.

In the three dozen poems that make up Jim Aitken’s latest collection, Flutterings, we sense a mind fully engaged in the world. The poet’s senses, feelings and intelligence are all equally involved; and it is a large world that he inhabits, ranging from such minute particulars as the bark of a silver birch tree peeling like “paint-work starting to flake” to such over-arching ideas as “the world turned upside down”.

The viewpoint from which Jim Aitken makes his observations is, in the first instance, his native Edinburgh, but behind that, through his family’s connections, lies a hinterland extending from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands. Add to that a wide internationalist perspective gained partly by travel and partly by engagement in socialist politics.

Flutterings is organised around three themes, leaves (at the beginning of the collection), feathers (at the end), with “Unum - All One to Me” in between. So we encounter plenty of trees and plenty of birds, beautifully captured in words, in all their uniqueness. There are the “plane and palm, / their branches flapping like washing on a line”; and there are arrogant blackbirds with their “frogspawn eyes”, and gallus magpies, and cormorants doing tai-chi. Permeating all these observations and capturings, however, and expressed directly in the book’s central section of poems, is the poet’s understanding that “the One encompasses all – / one world, one race, one love for all”.

This human (and humane) understanding informs a lovely tribute-poem dedicated to one of Jim Aitken’s friends, the Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, now settled in Scotland, and recently widowed here. Its closing lines give us a good taste of what the collection offers:

Sometimes tears can fill his eyes and not just
for his wife but for the lands that are within him...

Yet he is here with us and at home with us;
he is one of us, he is one of our ain folk
extending us with his experience -
an Arab in Scotland and a home in Scotland
transported way beyond the madness of borders.

Flutterings can best be described as a book of elegies, in the full, old-fashioned sense of the term “elegies”, that is to say poems of serious reflection, including laments for the dead. Jim Aitken’s serious reflection does not shy away from looking hard at politics (“adverse governance by the few”), nor from the upsets of everyday life, but it also delights in family and friends and simply being in the world. His serious reflection includes the comic, too, and the absurd, as in a poem about his grandson, Michael, called “Running and Chasing”:

As far as Michael is concerned
all birds are essentially ducks.
Not for him fluffy cats or dogs
or even farmyard animals.

For him any bird means a quack
and if he can he will chase them,
possibly hoping to enter
into flight if he does not catch one...

As for laments for the dead, in a sequence of six poems at the heart of the collection, the poet commemorates his mother, Mary Aitken, placing her with great precision in her time and place (as in the poem “Dunnet Head”), and honouring her influence, after “your stem broke and fell”.

The language of Flutterings is a flexible, extended, precise, and often conversational English. In a comment on one of Jim Aitken’s earlier collections, Neptune’s Staff and Other Formations (published by Scottish CND in 2007), Terry Eagleton commended its “delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness”. These characteristics are still very much in evidence here.

The English used is the English that Jim Aitken himself speaks, learned in a family where Irish and Highland and Leith vernaculars were the norm. “You talk in the first instance as your parents’ talk,” he explains. “That is your initial linguistic sound and register. Then, of course, there was the Englishing that went on in school...” He endured this process of having “street talk knocked out of you”, but can now happily report that, “I actually love English as a language, while I speak it with an East-coast Scottish accent.” In his own work as a teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school, he supported the use of Scots as well as English, and also Gaelic, and “left teaching with more Scottish literature being more widely used than when I was a student.”

The “political toughness” that Terry Eagleton remarked on makes its bone and muscle and sinew felt even in those poems in Flutterings that begin somewhere else. “Late Leaves” is a good example:

Late Leaves
by Jim Aitken

All the leaves were later this year
with the extended cold and the snow.
And when the first buds burst open
delight and relief became one.

Now in full flush they shine and sway
in sunlight as they always should.
Yet so many seem to take this
for granted as they always do.

In a world turned upside down
by the monstrous greed of the few
there is little of permanence
and much more precariousness.

Late leaves mean zero hours contracts,
a shuffling people on the move
from one bedroom just too many
imposed by those in their mansions.

Late leaves like the merging seasons
should be telling us something true,
to challenge the drift to darkness
where stunted trees produce no leaves.

By leaves we breathe, by leaves we live
and through our dumb disharmony
we threaten the leaves’ appearance
where all their wealth then turns to dust.

It may be worth pointing out that 'By leaves we live' is a core idea underpinning the life, work and thinking of the great biologist, sociologist, geographer, town-planner and educationalist Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932). It is also a motto text that is built into the very fabric of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

Political toughness was evident from the very start of Jim Aitken’s writing career, both in his collections of poetry and in the plays he wrote for such groups as Stop the War, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish CND, and the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. These include Twelve Poems for Mikolaj (1993), From the Front Line of Terror (2002), Celta Arabica (with Ghazi Hussein, 2004), Jock Campbell’s Bairns (2008), and Leaving George (2015). He also contributed two historical poems to A Rose Loupt Oot (2011), commemorating the UCS Work-in of 1971-72.

It is sometimes asserted, against all the evidence, that poetry and politics do not mix, the assumption being that propagandist ranting is the inevitable result. The political writings of Milton and Blake and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and MacDiarmid and a thousand others contradict this assertion. Yeats made the useful distinction between poetry that is merely rhetorical, a quarrel with others, and poetry that rings true. Jim Aitken avoids lapsing into the former, and achieves the latter, by grounding his poems very firmly and consistently in the material world of particular places and trees and birds and, above all, people.

His voice is a quiet one, and a wise one, imbued with a Wordsworthian “music of humanity”. It is at the same time a voice of today. In Flutterings, the reader hears this voice very clearly. The book is attractively printed, with good photographic design work. Recommended!

Flutterings, by Jim Aitken, is published by Red Rose Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-0-9955281-0-9.

In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow
Tuesday, 26 April 2016 16:50

In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow

Published in Poetry

In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow

“The Hollow Mountain: ever heard of it?"
He placed his glass next ours, then -
"Seat taken? No?" - sat down.

"I overheard you talking.
Seems History's your thing; mine, too,
though all the dates and names
that interest me
are never put in any books at all."

His face was a crumpled grey,
the likeness caught, soon after,
in a painting,
hung now on the bar-room wall.

The big man spoke with us,
an hour or more, of tunnelling:
of howking out the heart of Cruachan
when he was young,
to hold the dynamo that feeds the country
power.

Now dead, he is a part himself - a hero -
in the History he liked to hear.

 

Below is Brecht's original poem, which happens to be the favourite poem of the artist who drew the accompanying cartoon, Bob Starrett.

 

Questions From a Worker Who Reads

by Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?

So many reports.

So many questions.

 

You are invited to write a poem in a Brechtian style, and send it to us.

A Comedy of Ideas: The Cartoons of Bob Starrett
Wednesday, 27 January 2016 13:40

A Comedy of Ideas: The Cartoons of Bob Starrett

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge introduces some of the cartoons of Bob Starrett, the official cartoonist of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in of 1971-2.

When we look at Starrett’s cartoons, we may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! ha! in amusement at his portrayal of some silliness of human behaviour. We may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! in agreement with his satirical view of some political enemy. Most often, however, we laugh Ha! in delighted recognition of his skewering of some error, his highlighting of some truth, his scoring of some point. Such cartoons derive less from a comedy of manners, and rely less on caricature, than they express a comedy of ideas. To put it another way: in Starrett’s cartoons, we find less of the “good-tempered pencil” of a Fougasse, less of the personalised loathing of a Scarfe, and more of a focused analysis of the ways in which political wrongs operate. William Blake said that “a tear is an intellectual thing”. Starrett shows that a laugh can be an intellectual thing, too.

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As well as attacking the functions and dysfunctions of Capital, Starrett also aims his fire at those aspects of everyday life that disfigure and divide the cause of Labour. Racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia are frequent targets of his. Like Brecht, Starrett “takes a bold sweep, never letting inessential detail or decoration distract from the statement, which is an artistic and intellectual one” (Brecht, Stage Design for the Epic Theatre, 1951); or, as Starrett himself once said, emphatically, in conversation, “No rococo.”


In the lines that Starrett draws, in the captions that he writes, and in the angles and points of view that he puts across, he is informed by a wide web of creative influences. Jimmy Airley, Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, John Maclean, John Berger, Robert Burns, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Lindy Hemming, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Joan Littlewood, Bud Neill, Brendan Behan, Robert Noonan, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, and, most important of all, because they came first in Starrett’s education, Dunky Lamont and “all the guys in shipyards and on building sites who have given me ideas, themes and arguments” - they, and a long list of other thinkers, activists, artists, and writers stand behind him. Like them, and like the people for whom he draws his cartoons, Starrett looks with a sharp eye at the real world, engages with it, and shakes it until its contradictions rattle and its bubbles of absurdity go Pop!

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Starrett learned the essentials of visualising and drawing by copying other people’s work, and by taking advice. He quickly progressed to producing work of his own, in a style of his own, readily identifiable as “Starrett”; but his individuality has always been a reflection of, and a reflection on, topics of popular and political concern, notably the class struggle of Labour against Capital. His cartoons have been gifts, freely given to that struggle, being grounded in it, usually drawn to order, under pressure of time. He was a founder member of the Glasgow Trade Union Centre Poster Group, a spin-off of the historic UCS Work-in of 1971-72.

 

 

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Films - watching them, and working in them, initially with Bill Forsyth - are an important part of Starrett’s life. A favourite screen experience of his is re-visiting Charlie Chaplin’s great legacy, going back to the early days of cinema. (He has a boxed set of Chaplin’s films at home.) It is not surprising, then, that a recurring character in Starrett’s cartoons, The Worker, has certain similarities to Chaplin’s The Tramp. Both are resilient, resourceful, humane, strong, and clever. Both are constantly up against Wealth, Power, and Injustice, never weakening in their struggle to survive, and if possible prevail. There is, however, a significant difference: The Tramp is a marginalised individual, whereas The Worker is a member of that class in history that is not only the most exploited, but also the most creative. It is interesting to note that, according to the composer Hanns Eisler, Chaplin was a great teacher of Brecht’s. So Starrett and Brecht have that in common, as much else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As well as being a cartoonist, Starrett is an author. A collection of his writings, The Way I See It, was published in 2013, by Fair Pley. These writings combine memoir, joke, description, and short story, sometimes with a dash of comment. Especially where his setting is the shipyards, Starrett employs (and quotes) a clear and flexible kind of language that Brecht would have called “gestic”: that is to say, a kind of language that embodies both thought and attitude in the very shape of a sentence: a kind of language in which gist and gesture work as one, with “no messing”. (This clarity and flexibility informed the great debates of the UCS Work-in that Starrett’s cartoons helped to commemorate, and fed into the epoch-making oratory of its leaders.) There is an affinity between the punchlines that come thick and fast in Starrett’s writings and the outlines of his cartoons.

More of Bob Starrett's cartoons are here.

 

 
Tam O'Shanter and Souter Johnny at Kirkton Jean's
Saturday, 23 January 2016 09:12

An Alternative Burns Supper

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge presents two poems to help you enjoy an alternative Burns supper.

 

At An Alternative Burns Supper

His short life and his fertility
lift his perfection to the rank of the phenomenal...
- Aphorisms on Mozart, by Ferruccio Busoni

I

Here’s tae the man’s life -
its drivin root, its rise, its faur reach –
and tae the great hairst he gather’d in!

Here’s tae the wark -
the high skill, the luve, the daurk hours -
that he pit in!

Here’s tae the words that he gar’d flow -
a muckle stream -
frae his hert’s ferment and his mind’s still!

Here’s tae the faur-travellin o’ that stream!
Here’s tae its carried gowd!
Here’s tae the lang and future legacy
ane sma’ life endow’d!

                                                                         Idealist without losing touch
                                                                         with the earth, realist without ugliness...

II

... I would winnow the man
from the chaff of his myth;
the works from the man;
and the best of the works
from the run of the mill.

Winnow, I say, then winnow more;
then, at the last, distil!

I would sweep aside the cotter’s
and the hoghmagandie nights,
the barley-rigs and -bree;

likewise the chameleon roles
of ploughman-penman-citizen,
of ranting dog, of Jacobite, and Jacobin,
and keeper of crapulous company.

Winnow, and distil!

                                                                                      His resources are extraordinarily abundant,
                                                                                      but he never uses them all...

What’s left of worth -
epistles, satires, songs, a handful’s few -
has high cask-strength: here
is the bard’s best, and the world’s best, too...

III

“The bard’s best, and the world’s best, too.”
Best: how Ah hate thi term!
Wurld’s best is wurse, excrementil,
thru-n-thru. As fur thi shit wurd the - euch! -
it’s faur-n-awey thi wurst o aw thi terms
in Abstractionism’s buik.
It’s purest extramentil, n that is definit.

                                                                                   He disposes of light and shadow, but his light
                                                                                   does not pain, and his darkness still shows
                                                                                   clear outlines...

Tak thi man-n-his stuff intire!
Nae finicky-pickity pluckin o plooms!
Burns wis complexit wi his place-n-times,
n he writ wi his haill sel fired.
Read it thi same: leeve in it, imbrace it,
breathe it, crap bits-n-aw: like it’s a freend:
jist as it is: baggy, raw.

Gie us this dey ur poems incarnate!
Onythin less is Plato’s pish,
n that is definate.

IV

... He was amphibian.
Languages, genres, points of view, and styles -
he moved between them easily.
Fast-travelling, he seldom stayed in any one
for long, until, towards his early end,
he made landfall in an archipelago of song.
It was for him, and for posterity,
his Fortunate Isles.
There, to every Muse
containable in verse, he gave the blessing
of his voice, a blessing that, in reading
and in singing, we can never lose...

                                                                                     He is young as a boy,
                                                                                     and wise as an old man -
                                                                                     never old-fashioned and never modern...

V

If Life’s nae a jig in July weather,
but a gallop insteid, hell for leather,
wi’ nocht at the end save a tightenin’ tether,
wi’ dark beyond,
best we a’ gang our gate thegither,
in Freenship’s bond.

                                                                                ...carried to the grave
                                                                                and always alive...

May SANG sustain us on our way,
remind us whaur we first saw day,
an’ prime us for the waitin’ clay,
whan a’ are cow’d.
Until that time, may LUVE haud sway,
an’ LIFE ride proud.

 

CHORUS OF THE PEOPLE
Against the Elites

We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.

Expendable,
we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for,
but have none.

Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.

Every ton and inch and cubic yard and chisel-cut
of every building you command,
is ours.

Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed
is ours.

Your wealth-producing factories;
your cities -
ours!

Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need from reservoir to tap;
we stitch the clothes that cover up your nakedness;
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.

We are your numerous and essential kin.

 

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