Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

The Sikh Snowman
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 11:16

The Sikh Snowman

Published in Books

Some snowmen had topknots. Some wore football scarves and skull caps. Some had veils over their faces. One had fairy wings. They all began to sing......

Snowfall, friendship and feelings combine in this heartfelt and celebratory story about coming together. There's a relatable and joyous sense of wonder as the snow starts and as the friends pull together to build their snowman. Filled with heart, hope and humanity, it is easy to imagine The Sikh Snowman becoming a firm favourite. - Jake Hope, Youth Libraries Group

The Sikh Snowman, by Owen Gallagher with artwork by Fiona Stewart, ISBN 978-1-912710-29-4. Price: £9 plus £3 p. and p.

 

 

Culture is Bad For You
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 10:55

Culture is Bad For You

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille interviews Mark Taylor, co-author of Culture is Bad For You, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, published by Manchester University Press.

Q. The usual mainstream assumption is that culture is good for you – that it’s enjoyable, keeps you healthy, socially connected, inspiring etc. So ‘Culture is Bad For You’ is an interesting title for a book – can you tell us what you mean, the kind of research you’ve been doing over the last few years, and the core arguments that you’ve developed?

A. Culture can be good for you, depending on who you are. If you’re White, you’re not disabled, you’re a man, and you grew up in a household where there was at least one adult working in a well-paid high-status job, culture’s great. You probably grew up with positive examples of art, music, theatre, and so on all around you. You might also have decided you wanted to work in the creative industries: sure, you might have had to do a couple of unpaid internships in art galleries, or you might have spent months on writing your first Fringe show that you ended up losing money on, but you had good contacts that meant you were pretty sure that a promising agent would come to one of your performances, and you could keep living in your parents’ house in London while you were putting this together.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone: not everyone who works in the creative industries fulfils the stereotype above, and it’s not as if every single wannabe actor with parental wealth ends up making it. But our research shows that this is the broad direction of travel. There are exceptions to this, where some forms of culture do more to challenge social inequalities, but overall we conclude that culture primarily reinforces existing inequalities.

The first core argument in the book is to make this explicit. Culture is sometimes narrated as a place where anyone can make it and thrive; we show that it’s much easier for some people than it is for others. But we also want to unpack some of the reasons why this is, rather than stopping once we’ve mapped out the numbers. The second core argument is that this isn’t a new phenomenon. We often hear claims that there was a “golden age” in cultural work, and that the situation’s got worse more recently, particularly with reference to social class: we show that this is entirely due to changes in the labour market, and that cultural work has always been unequal. The third core argument is that negative aspects of cultural work that seem ubiquitous – for example, periods of working for free and navigating a freelance lifestyle – are in fact experienced very differently by different people, where they can be seen as freeing and exciting for people who are better-resourced and fit the “somatic norm” of a White middle-class man, but crushing inevitabilities for people with less money to fall back on and those who don’t fit that stereotype.

So culture can be bad for you if you’re working in the cultural industries and you don’t fit that stereotype of a middle-class, White, male person. What about as consumers of culture, can culture be bad for you then? And can you say something about how culture is defined?

When we’re asking how culture is defined, we need to think about who’s defining culture. For some people, “culture” will mean “the sorts of things that were funded by the Arts Council sixty years ago”: literary fiction, classical music, ballet, experimental theatre. For others, “culture” will mean hanging out with friends, going to gigs in independent venues, going to non-league football matches, or attending religious ceremonies. Both groups are right, but the first group tends to have its voice heard more often than the second group. It’s important to recognise that there are people who are in both groups, and that there’s plenty of other equally valid approaches to defining culture.

Consuming culture can be bad for you in much the same way that producing culture can be. Consistent with other research – people have known about this for decades! – patterns of attending different kinds of events, and patterns of people’s cultural tastes, are strongly associated with dimensions of social inequality, such as social class. The activities which skew most heavily towards people in the most privileged positions also tend to be the ones which are heavily subsidised by organisations like the Arts Council. This isn’t a criticism of the Arts Council, who are doing their best; it’s impossible to revert long-term patterns in a single strategy document. This means that the overall effect can be that when people from less privileged backgrounds attend these sorts of activities, they can feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Another effect can be that the activities whose audiences are largely from less privileged backgrounds are less well-supported financially, with programmes more likely to be cut. Of course, this isn’t deterministic: we’re not saying that every single working-class person walking into an opera house will feel uncomfortable and won’t come back. However, several of our participants from historically marginalised groups reported feeling uncomfortable and marginalised as cultural consumers, just as they did as cultural producers.

Ok so your research suggests that there are deep and enduring inequalities both in the production of culture, and in its consumption. Is this true of all cultural experiences, or are there exceptions? Is the pattern of inequality broadly the same in all regions of England? Your book also suggests that the inequalities are ‘intersectional’, involving social class, gender and ethnic background. What does this mean, and what is the relationship between inequalities in the cultural sector and inequalities in wider society?

In many ways, everything is an exception! Thinking about consumption, there are some activities that seem to cut across different groups much more than others. Carnivals are a good example: there’s similar fractions of people from different social classes, similar fractions of men and women, and similar fractions of White people and people of colour. (There’s also more younger people than older people, which is the reverse of the pattern that we see for a lot of activities). Video games are another good example.

Thinking about production is a bit different. We can start by comparing people working in film & TV with people working in museums, galleries & libraries. At first blush, they look very different; 29% of people working in film & TV are women, while 81% of people working in museums, galleries, and libraries are. So if your goal was to get all sectors to 50:50, you’d have to take a very different approach. Then again, what both sectors have in common is that the workforces get more male as jobs get more senior. So, while they’re different from each other, they’re not as far apart as you might think.

The patterns of inequality aren’t the same in all regions of England, but in many ways that reflects the large fraction of cultural jobs that are in London. We find that you’re much more likely to end up working in a cultural job if you grew up in London, and that’s after we take into account the strong associations with parental social class, education, ethnic group, and gender.

Finally, we find that the intersectional experience is really important. Some of the people who’d had the most negative experiences working in culture were women of colour from working-class backgrounds. Of course, these experiences of working in culture reflect wider society. But we found that some of the informal structures of cultural work, such as people getting jobs through informal networks and a hostility from more senior people to what they see as bureaucracy, can make the situation worse.

It seems to be a very sobering, not to say depressing, picture that’s emerged from your research – but it’s one that clearly has major implications for cultural policies and strategies. The research seems to confirm theories which claim that ruling classes and elites own and control cultural production and consumption in order to reinforce and legitimise wider economic exploitation and social oppression of women and people of colour – or perhaps to divert attention away from it. Is that fair to say? And is there any reason to suppose that other cultural activities, such as sport, or religion, or broadcast and social media, differ significantly from this picture of structural inequality? 

I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Some of our participants were senior White men from middle-class backgrounds who are working, or who have worked, in senior roles in cultural organisations. Of course, we wouldn’t expect them to explicitly say that they’re reinforcing and legitimising economic exploitation and social oppression of historically marginalised groups, but it went further than that: they described a real distress at the inequalities in their sectors and recognised how they personally exemplified structural problems. It’s for this reason that I don’t think it’ll be possible to transform inequalities in the cultural sector by addressing the cultural sector alone. When you have a sector that large numbers of people want to work in, people who go in with better resources are in a stronger position. This can’t be overturned with changes to how the Arts Council distributes money; I often find myself thinking that the most significant way to confront inequalities in the cultural sector would be to transform legislation around private rented accommodation.

In terms of how other activities differ from this picture of structural inequalities, I’d point to work by people like Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman, who’ve investigated how the fractions of people from different backgrounds vary across industries. Culture, as you’d suspect, isn’t alone: in fact, it’s very similar to higher education.

If it’s true, as your research clearly seems to demonstrate, that class-based inequalities in cultural production and consumption mirror wider social and economic inequalities and class divisions, and that generally they reinforce and legitimise those inequalities, what should be done? What kinds of policies on culture should the current government adopt to deliver the promise of ‘levelling up’ the North?

What should ACE, local authorities and other bodies charged with managing and funding cultural experiences do to tackle the problem? What role should the labour movement – trade unions, trades councils, the Labour Party and other political parties – play? Should we be aiming to protest the unequal situation of working-class people, seek representation on strategic bodies like Compacts? Should we set up and support our own theatre groups, film networks, publishing houses etc?

A lot of the kinds of policy interventions that would be most effective in confronting inequalities in the cultural sector are broader than the sector itself. A simple example is formally regulating (and almost certainly banning) unpaid internships: the consequences of unpaid internships are particularly visible in cultural work, but it’s just as important for think tanks and the policy research environment more broadly.

A more complicated example is housing: several of our interviewees reported spending large amounts of money on low-quality accommodation in London where they were on edge about their landlord ending their tenancy at no notice. A few different policies would get at this: regulation of the private rented sector to look more like Germany; far more socially rented housing to look more like Austria; more homes being built so that housing is no longer such a scarce resource. This kind of transformation wouldn’t be targeted at the cultural sector, but for me it would be the most effective way to confront existing inequalities.

This doesn’t mean that the cultural sector is off the hook. It’s easy to blame broader structures for the inequalities in the sector, rather than taking responsibility. There are things that organisations like the Arts Council and DCMS could do, given the right support, such as committing amounts of money to Black-led organisations. There’s a very interesting and persuasive argument for this that Kevin Osborne’s recently written, that I’d recommend people read.

For people working in the sector, the first thing to draw attention to is campaigning and activism. There’s organisations operating in and around cultural work that are drawing attention to the inequalities in culture, and doing things about it – I’d particularly highlight Arts Emergency, who both campaign around these issues and work directly with young people from historically marginalised to improve their chances of working in culture. People working in and around culture can support campaigning charities like Arts Emergency as individuals; they can also try to convince their organisations for an institutional commitment. We should recognise that the unusual working patterns of a large number of people in the sector aren’t symptomatic of a stereotypical contract – although the precarity associated with cultural workers goes far beyond them – and defend and extend workers’ rights and conditions through trade unions.

Beyond this, a radical approach to addressing these inequalities needs radical measures. In the book, we suggest that it’ll be necessary to bypass current modes of cultural production: big changes don’t start by transforming the Tate, but by starting something new. We suspect that this is likely to follow from new digital business models, driven and controlled by the marginalised themselves. In addition, there’s also a responsibility from audiences: if there’s an alternative to mainstream cultural production, with all the problems that we describe in the book, then we should support it.

We demonstrate in the book that there’s an overwhelming belief in the power of culture: culture can change lives. This isn’t a marginal issue that we can deal with once we’ve confronted all the other inequalities and injustices in the world, it’s inextricably linked to them. At the moment, the power of culture is often negative. If we want to transform that, everyone needs to do their part.

Culture is Bad For You, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, is published by Manchester University Press.

From the Plough to the Stars
Sunday, 08 November 2020 21:29

From the Plough to the Stars

Published in Books

From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland

This is the follow-up volume to Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People's Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, published in 2019. Like that book, it aims to express working people's perspective on life. There are 50 contributions from the whole island of Ireland, driving home the fact that their life experience as working people is the same, no matter where on the island they live, on which side of the border, rural or urban, female or male, younger or older, writing in Irish or English.

The underlying inequalities of our class-divided society have been laid bare by the coronavirus, including the ways in which working-class histories, experiences and values have never been adequately represented in Irish national cultural life. The common focus is on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working-class life in contemporary Ireland. The writers create a complex and varied image of Irish working people today, one that challenges conventional stereotypes of their class.

The anthology is edited by Jenny Farrell, has a foreword by Gerry Murphy, President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and it has been generously supported and promoted by the Irish labour movement.

From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland. ISBN: 978-1-912710-36-2

212pps. Price: €12/ £11 plus €5/£4 p. and p. 

From Ireland and the rest of Europe...

From the UK...... 

From the U.S and rest of the world...

Climate Matters
Friday, 06 November 2020 16:23

Climate Matters

Published in Books

Climate Matters: A collaboration between Riptide Journal and Culture Matters, edited and introduced by Virginia Baily, Sally Flint and Mike Quille

In 2019 we challenged writers and artists to address the burning topic of the climate crisis and question its relationship with capitalism. In 2020 Covid–19 erupted and spread across the world.

The whole of this anthology has been assembled under the on-going but ever-changing restrictions imposed by this pandemic, which has necessarily coloured the content in ways that we could not have foreseen when we put out the call for submissions.

The collection makes for sobering reading, but it is also beautiful, insightful, occasionally uplifting and leavened with humour, mainly of the gallows kind. And it is also necessary, because the first step to action is to seek the truth, not to flinch or seek token responses, not to close our eyes and turn away, not to shrug or be side-lined by despair or eco-terror, or the magnitude of the vested interests, including our own, at stake.

Greta Thunberg was right to excoriate the rich and powerful gathered at Davos earlier this year, for having done ‘basically nothing’ about the issue. But as we have seen throughout the pandemic, an economy geared to the maximisation of profits, and a state shaped to facilitate that goal, means that our society is poorly equipped to plan for an emergency at all, whether that be a health emergency or a climate emergency. Climate change and the coronavirus are hitting the poorest hardest, and capitalism is making things worse.

Climate Matters is a powerful expression of the inextricable connections between capitalism, Covid-19 and the climate crisis, and the need for a new, democratic and socialist vision of how we see our world and our place in it – a new definition of what constitutes a good life.

Through words, metaphors, images and scientific argument, this collection brings to life the nature of the cliff edge on which we teeter. It is the clamour of clear, resounding voices calling from that cliff top, saying that we need to act now and act fast, because our survival depends on it.

The book is available to download here, and is also available as a free ebook - please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Wednesday, 04 November 2020 16:54

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille interviews Adam Theron-Lee Rensch about his new book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture

Q. Can you tell us about why you decided to write the book; what the book is about; and why you chose the ‘memoir’ genre to write it in?

A. I was very resistant to writing a traditional memoir, and the first draft of the book included very little personal narrative. While I’ve written about my life and experiences in essays, I believe the memoir or “creative nonfiction” genre tends to perpetuate neoliberal narratives that eliminate structural critique in favour of emotional identification. Everything becomes about the writer as an individual: their suffering, their triumph, etc. Who cares about the larger set of social relations that make this possible? What matters is what is moving enough to sell copy. So, I knew I didn’t want to play into this.

At the same time, I realized my life was something of a convenient structure onto which I could hang my critique: I was born in 1984, came of age in the post-9/11 landscape, and internalized the liberal obsession with meritocracy. If I was going to make something of myself, I thought, I had to become educated. The middle-class fantasy of managerial creativity was baked into how I saw the world, and how I imagined solutions to its problems. I had to unlearn all of that. I think the “left” more broadly also needs to unlearn this, and I’m hoping that people will find something useful in reading about my own process.

Q. Yes, and one of the ways you are clearly hoping that readers will ‘unlearn’ their political outlook is through a more accurate understanding of their class position, and the importance of class-based politics. Can you tell us about your own journey to a clearer understanding of class, and your thoughts on how the left can achieve a cultural shift towards a greater class consciousness amongst working people?

The biggest obstacle for me in understanding class was, as it is for many, the cultural and aesthetic markers that are often confused for class: education, taste, etc. I grew up in Ohio, surrounded primarily by poor and working-class whites. For a long time, I was ashamed of this fact, and attempted to leave it behind by embracing a stereotypically “cultured” aesthetic. I placed a lopsided emphasis on “ideas,” that elusive resource utilized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the so-class professional-managerial class. There was something seductive about feeling smart, but at the end of the day it did not change my material conditions. I was still struggling to find reliable work, and was in debt from all that schooling I was certain would bring me success.

A few years after the financial crisis of 2008, I moved back to Ohio. Slowly, and admittedly with some resistance, I began to see that all the stuff I thought mattered was not very important. It was mainly a way for me to rationalize my own position in the hierarchy: I may be poor, but at least I’m not stupid! Sadly, this is still a common reason for many to justify inequality and suffering. I think the first major step in creating class consciousness would be to understand that it has nothing to do with individual beliefs and traits of this sort. You likely belong to the same class as many of your partisan adversaries—the working class—and while it may feel uncomfortable to demand justice for them as well it is nevertheless the only way forward.

What I mean is that a majority of workers receive a wage that barely covers their cost of living. It is enough to cover rising costs in housing, food, and insurance, perhaps a credit card or car payment, but not enough to get ahead. Many are not “lucky enough” to even make this much. These are the conditions that shape the lives of most people. They are material, not cultural, and they unite workers in a way that other categories cannot.

The left’s best chance at organizing a broad movement is to focus on these material conditions that a diverse population has in common. This is of course easier said than done, because cultural divisions are powerful. Resentment is a logical reaction to suffering, and it is easier to blame someone than it is to accept that your pain is simply the result of an indifferent economic logic. But again, I think focusing on material condition is a necessary first step toward creating a political movement that a mass of people find appealing.

Q. Ok so if we need to develop a new culture of class-based politics which will unite the mass of working people, this will mean engaging in so-called ‘culture wars’ against the dominant forces that shape our culture. In this context, what do you think is the responsibility of cultural workers – artists, poets, writers, film-makers, playmakers etc. – to help our class develop and apply a more class conscious approach to social and political campaigns?

This is a good but difficult question, but one I think about a lot given my own position as a writer who values culture objects like novels and films. I am not “influential” in any meaningful sense, at least compared to mainstream writers and filmmakers who reach the general public. Nevertheless, I am conflicted by the role works of culture play. It is something of a cliché to bemoan the fact that art is a commodity, and that works of film or literature, even those with explicitly political commitments, must in some sense appeal to a market for distribution. But acknowledging the cliché doesn’t change that fact. The market’s primary function is to relegate politics to the realm of consumer preference: this film appeals to your political sensibilities, that novel appeals to someone else’s, etc. In my more cynical moments, I often wonder if art is not inherently conservative, even when its aesthetic is outwardly radical.

At the same time, I don’t think being a philistine is a useful position for anyone to take. So, what we’re left with is a tension between market forces and the individual commitments of cultural workers, the latter of whom must court the market for an audience. Their politics, much like the critics handing out prestigious awards, tend to skew liberal. But I would say if there’s one thing cultural workers can do it is challenge the sort of narratives the market finds so appealing, and that justify the neoliberal worldview of individual adversity and triumph. What this would look like, exactly, I’m not sure. Class relations have nothing to do with “the individual” in the narrative sense, or even “lived experience,” to borrow a term used a lot these days. Perhaps the role of cultural workers is simply to find ways to make objects that acknowledge this. I think a film like Parasite comes close: it is a film first and foremost about class, and adopts genre tropes to offer a description of class relations, which is totally smart and useful.

Q. Thank you! There is a lot there to think about, and that resonated with our approach to culture on Culture Matters. Can I now turn to the main political and cultural issue in the United States – the presidential election. In the light of the need for more class-based politics, what’s your take on Trump’s presidency and the class consciousness of different segments of the American people?

Contrary to popular belief, I think class consciousness does exist in America. The problem is that it’s the wrong class. The wealthy have a keen sense of their position, and as our political “spectrum” shows they are willing to put aside differences to make sure they maintain their power. Indeed, bipartisanship is never greater than when workers try to organize or fight back.

There are many obstacles preventing widespread class consciousness among workers, from the shame of admitting one is poor to the atomization characteristic of what I like to call “curated capitalism.” The algorithm has done a lot to fracture any sense of a common or “mainstream” culture that everyone interacts with. Everything can be tweaked and personalized, and soon you find yourself online in communities of people just like you, never needing to interact with anyone outside of it. Add to this our lack of organized labour, our culture wars, and a deep suspicion toward the possibility of change, and you’re left with a country of alienated people who are often too exhausted to do anything except find small comforts in leisurely activities.

Adam head shot

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Trump’s presidency has been painted as some sort of populist uprising, but I don’t think that’s quite right. About 110 million people didn’t vote in 2016, mostly those in the lower income brackets. If anything, the absence of working class participation is the real populist revolt, but this fact is never talked about seriously. Instead, we continue to inflate the problem of the “white working class” who of course is described as inherently authoritarian, racist, etc.

Why? Because it justifies the worldview of those who benefit from our class structure, and ensures that the discourse focuses on criticizing individuals (bigots) and not social relations. After all, if you’re a manager or media personality, even one with left-leaning politics, do you really want workers to organize and take away what power and influence you have? It’s not a surprise that during the 2020 primary, Elizabeth Warren’s base was educated professionals who preferred her top-down managerial approach to Bernie’s bottom-up solidarity. They were the ones who’d get to manage the “revolution”!

Q. Thank you. Finally, what is your view on the result of the election, in terms of the need to develop and promote class-based and socialist politics in the U.S.? What does the future hold for the U.S. and the world generally?

The 2020 election was in a lot of ways a missed opportunity for class-based politics in America. Sanders never fully recaptured the insurgency he represented in 2016, and I think his exit was seen by the establishment as an indictment of policies that prioritize the needs of the working class. As a result, the “choice” between Biden and Trump was basically aesthetic: which version of austerity do you prefer?

Moving forward, I think there needs to be a serious conversation about what “the left” represents. The culture wars of the Bush era never really went away, they were just given new descriptions. To be somewhat reductive, the Christian Right was replaced by the Fascist alt-right, and the Latte Left was replaced by the anti-fascist Left. A lot of self-described socialists still reflexively approach working people as incapable of contributing to the movement. They are often seen as too reactionary, or too uneducated, unable to participate in the discourse properly. As someone who has spent too much time in academia, I feel comfortable saying we need to stop taking our cues from intellectual vanguards and prominent media personalities who remain mired in the culture wars. Under this approach, material interests of working people are not always represented within this dynamic. This can make the left’s project alienating and incapable of attracting broad support.

I am not smart enough to offer an easy solution to this problem. What I will say is that we need to focus more on those material interests that impact a massive segment of the population: wages, insurance, housing, and debt. The U.S. economy is not productive in the way it once was, which means the source of exploitation has changed. While industrial capital still exists, much of it has been outsourced and replaced by finance capital. Monopoly rent-seeking has become a critical problem and effectively resurrected feudalism.

In other words, far fewer American workers are being paid to produce goods that other workers buy to realize profits. Rather, profits are realized by charging workers to use services. This is the Silicon Valley model as seen with Netflix, Spotify, and others. Amazon, for example, generates billions each year simply by charging people to host websites. How do these companies remain profitable? They do so by cutting costs, not by hiring more workers to produce more goods. So, focusing our energy on that parasitic model of profit extraction would have the greatest impact in changing the power relations to benefit working people.

Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020
Tuesday, 27 October 2020 08:54

Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020

Published in Poetry

Handbook for 2021 is the judges' selection of 40 entries to the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2020, including the seven winners. Image above: Martin Rowson.

The coronavirus pandemic this year has had a devastating human cost, with over 60,000 lives lost to date. The health crisis has also exposed the scourges of vast and growing poverty, inequality and low pay that continue to blight class-divided British society, after a decade of Tory cuts to
our public services. The achievements of the National Health Service, that beacon of socialised medicine for the common good, have been amazing,
fighting valiantly with inadequate resources to damage-limit the impact of the pandemic throughout 2020.

The poems in this year's Bread and Roses Poetry Award anthology bear the poetic scars of the searing, psychical conflicts resulting from the pandemic. They
also carry an expressive power and linguistic energy which brings a much-needed boost to the hearts and minds of whoever reads them, whether bereaved,
recovering, or still self-isolating. But other topical themes are tackled aside from the pandemic, such as the environment, poverty, homelessness, and
the Black Lives Matter movement and its associated uprooting of controversial statues in our cities.

As in previous years, what these poems demonstrate above all is an imaginative transcendence of circumstance and suffering. They show a vital and effervescent verse in adversity, rich in variety of tones and styles, from the viscerally expressive to the archly satirical. Every contribution to this anthology of selected entrants to the 2020 Bread and Roses Poetry Award is worthy of special mention. Normally prizes are given for five poems, but this year the judges - Andy Croft from Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer from Unite - recommended seven poems for prizes, and Unite kindly agreed to fund the additional prizes.

Unite, the biggest trade union in Britain, has supported and sponsored the Bread and Roses Poetry Award for four years now. Alongside the economic struggles over terms and conditions of employment, and the political struggles to advance justice and fairness for all working people, Unite recognises the importance of the cultural struggle to enable working-class voices to be published and listened to, across all cultural activities including poetry. Culture Matters is very grateful to Unite and in particular its Director of Education, Jim Mowatt, for their continuing support.

So congratulations to the the seven joint winners: Jane Burn, Annie McRae, Raymond Miller, Jenny Mitchell, Antony Owen, Laura Taylor and Sylvia Telfer. Congratulations also to the Glasgow-based poet Trisha Heaney, who will be mentored and helped to produce her first poetry collection, which will be published by Culture Matters in 2021. And thanks also to the other entrants who are in this anthology, for sharing with us their creative and resilient responses to the world around us in these hard but not hopeless times, and giving us an inspiring handbook for 2021.

Here is one of the winning poems:

Salvation

by Laura Taylor

We fucked in the morning
before dawn's light
choked desire with uncertainty.
And the bees didn't know
and the birds didn't care
that economy's collapse
was hanging in the air,
but we were frozen.
Libidos crashed as society
smashed against the ground,
and just as the Spring woke
land and lamb,
and bright sun rose
on magnolia's bloom,
butterfly's dusty rouse,
boom went bust,
jobs got lost, futures broke,
and national legs and lungs closed down.

We extracted empty promises
of ongoing hours
from bosses facing losses
on their capital gains.
Observed that poverty, profit and policy
never made love
though slept in the same wet bed.
But tenderness wrought
some comfort when
we fucked in the morning
before dawn's light
choked desire with uncertainty.
With arms and legs wrapped tight
round love, we kissed the lips
of fear and fate,
made a nest
for us to hide
and hunker down
to safety.

 

Handbook for 2021: The Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020
Sunday, 25 October 2020 12:18

Handbook for 2021: The Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020

Published in Books

Handbook for 2021 is the judges' selection of 40 entries to the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2020, including the seven winners. Cover image: Martin Rowson.

The coronavirus pandemic this year has had a devastating human cost. It has also exposed the virulent scourges of growing poverty, inequality and low pay that continue to blight class-divided British society, after a decade of vicious Tory cuts to our vital public services, and sheer incompetence and dishonesty in government.

The poems bear witness to the searing effects of the health crisis, as well as other themes such as the environment, poverty, and the Black Lives Matter
movement. They also carry an expressive power and energy which will bring a much-needed boost to the hearts and minds of whoever reads them, giving us
all an inspiring handbook for 2021.

It is hard to write about the injustices of contemporary society without slipping into easy denunciations, second-hand phrases and borrowed anger. The best political poetry should also be painful to read, interrogating itself and challenging what the reader thinks they know or believe to be true.

The entries to this year’s Bread and Roses competition certainly share a sense of impatient rage and revulsion at the way the world works; but they are also distinguished by intellectual ambition, literary technique and political resilience. And they say what needs to be said about the subjects that matter most —inequality, work, unemployment, solidarity, struggle, homelessness,racism, illegal wars, and environmental disaster.

—Andy Croft, publisher of Smokestack Books

Please use button below to purchase copies.

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2020: The winners!
Thursday, 30 July 2020 11:44

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2020: The winners!

Published in Poetry

This year the judges, Andy Croft of Smokestack Books and Mary Sayer from Unite, picked seven rather than five poems which they thought worthy winners of the Award. So Unite have kindly agreed to provide additional prize money this year for all seven poems. The winners are

Handbook for 2021 by Jane Burn

A Stitch in Time by Annie McCrae

Donkey Jacket by Raymond Miller

Burden of Ownership by Jenny Mitchell

If Boris Johnson had a Cuppa with my Nan from Willenhall by Antony Owen

Salvation by Laura Taylor

All Our Shadows are Black by Sylvia Telfer

The mentoring package this year, to help unpublished writers with their first collection, will be offered to Trisha Heaney. Congratulations to the seven winners and the mentee (if that's the right word) and thanks to all those who entered.

This year's Bread and Roses anthology containing a selection of entries will be available to buy later in the year. If you wish to order copies in advance please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Here are the judges' comments on this year's entries:

It is hard to write about the injustices of contemporary society without slipping into easy denunciations, second-hand phrases and borrowed anger. The best political poetry should also be painful to read, interrogating itself and challenging what the reader thinks they know or believe to be true.

The entries to this year’s Bread and Roses competition certainly share a sense of impatient rage and revulsion at the way the world works; but they are also distinguished by intellectual ambition, literary technique and political resilience. And they say what needs to be said about the subjects that matter most – inequality, work, unemployment, solidarity, struggle, homelessness, racism, illegal wars, environmental disaster. - Andy Croft, publisher of Smokestack Books

I was listening to Linton Kwesi Johnson on the radio the other day when he said 'poetry doesn't change the world, only people can do that'. Reading these magnificent, resonant poems and thinking about the people who wrote them and the people who will read them – gives me hope that massive and meaningful change in these overwhelming times is possible. - Mary Sayer, Unite in Schools Coordinator

Here is one of the winning entries: 

Burden of Ownership

by Jenny Mitchell

He measures cost in body parts. A head pays
for a month of food; two eyes a week of drink.
Christmas adds a throat. Carved out with care
the neck still holds a yoke if the chin is firm
weight evenly proportioned.

Four breasts pay for his wife's new car, a mad
extravagance she must not think will be the norm.
Her furs demand a score of navels.
One manly chest is paid for every house –
he only wants the very best.

A waist is worth the price of land: an acre for two wombs.
Twelve manhoods buy a gushing stream
to serve his many fields. A sack of feet placed
in a bank account, maintains his balance
and the boast: he's always in the black.

The cry of the poor from inner-city Dublin: Sacred Symphony
Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:43

The cry of the poor from inner-city Dublin: Sacred Symphony

Published in Poetry

Sacred Symphony is a new collection of poems on life in inner-city Dublin, by Karl Parkinson, with photographs by Peter O'Doherty. It includes All the Swings are Gone and is introduced by Father Peter McVerry, who concludes with these words:

Those who are economically unproductive are considered a drain on the economy, undeserving of support. Those who are homeless, addicted or long-term unemployed are not just excluded from society, but unwanted by society.

This oppressive ideology has become so embedded in the thinking of many, including our decision makers, that any alternative seems unimaginable. That is why the poems in this book are important. They challenge that ideology, they reflect the anger and feelings of those who are excluded and feel unwanted, who see no future for themselves in our present society.

Some of these poems are dark, despairing and difficult to read. Many are about the use of drugs, the only respite available from a painful and seemingly meaningless existence. Others reflect dreams that will never be fulfilled, or a search for meaning, or for answers to half-articulated questions. And the poems show a resilience that often characterises those who have to struggle hard, on a daily basis, to survive and make sense of their lives.

But these voices, uncomfortable as they may be to many people, have to be heard. They have to be listened to. And they require a response.

Comments on the book so far include:

Here are poems that bear witness. Here are poems that do not look away. Sacred Symphony is, in essence, a holy book for our times – a book that illuminates the vast, oceanic nature of human grief caused by poverty, addiction and violence in inner-city communities and beyond. Parkinson is among the most important poets working in Ireland today. – Annemarie Ní Churreáin, poet, author of Bloodroot (Doire Press)

Karl Parkinson is amongst the most courageous of modern Irish writers. – RTE Lyric FM

Parkinson has set himself up unashamedly and without irony as a singer of the human soul in its contrary states of degradation and exaltation. It's worth listening to him. – The Irish Times

There is a very good interview with Karl on the excellent Island's Edge website.

Sacred Symphony by Karl Parkinson, ISBN: 978-1-912710-33-1Price: 12 euros, plus p. and p:

Or £10 plus p. and p. from Britain:

Sacred Symphony
Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:22

Sacred Symphony

Published in Books

Sacred Symphony is a new collection of poems on life in inner-city Dublin by Karl Parkinson, with images by Peter O'Doherty, ISBN: 978-1-912710-33-1

It is introduced by Father Peter McVerry, who writes this in the Introduction:

Those who are economically unproductive are considered a drain on the economy, undeserving of support. Those who are homeless, addicted or long-term unemployed are not just excluded from society, but unwanted by society.

This oppressive ideology has become so embedded in the thinking of many, including our decision makers, that any alternative seems unimaginable. That is why the poems in this book are important. They challenge that ideology, they reflect the anger and feelings of those who are excluded and feel unwanted, who see no future for themselves in our present society.

Some of these poems are dark, despairing and difficult to read. Many are about the use of drugs, the only respite available from a painful and seemingly meaningless existence. Others reflect dreams that will never be fulfilled, or a search for meaning, or for answers to half-articulated questions. And the poems show a resilience that often characterises those who have to struggle hard, on a daily basis, to survive and make sense of their lives.

But these voices, uncomfortable as they may be to many people, have to be heard. They have to be listened to. And they require a response.

Comments on the book so far include:

Here are poems that bear witness. Here are poems that do not look away. Sacred Symphony is, in essence, a holy book for our times – a book that illuminates the vast, oceanic nature of human grief caused by poverty, addiction and violence in inner-city communities and beyond. Parkinson is among the most important poets working in Ireland today. – Annemarie Ní Churreáin, poet, author of Bloodroot (Doire Press)

Karl Parkinson is amongst the most courageous of modern Irish writers. – RTE Lyric FM

Parkinson has set himself up unashamedly and without irony as a singer of the human soul in its contrary states of degradation and exaltation. It's worth listening to him. – The Irish Times

Sacred Symphony by Karl Parkinson, ISBN: 978-1-912710-33-1. Price: 12 euros, plus p. and p:

Or £10 plus p. and p. from Britain:

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