Chris Norris

Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.

Migrants: a dialogue
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 14:37

Migrants: a dialogue

Published in Poetry

Migrants: a dialogue

by Chris Norris

Some certainly recognized the suffering of the migrants concerned, but comments beneath a Daily Mail article included the following: ‘Isn’t it about time these people stayed to sort out the mess in their own countries instead of running away?’; and ‘Hard as it may seem, the only solution is to send all of them (without exception) back to the port where they came from’ . . . . These are not the comments of people simply too absorbed in their own lives to dwell on the suffering of distant people. They express an active resistance against the ethical claim that these migrants’ suffering might make upon the authors.
- Julia O’Connell Davidson, ‘Migration, Suffering and Rights’

We've travelled many seas, my love,
We've travelled many lands,
For when you're refugees, my love,
There's no-one understands;
Sometimes I think the Lord above
Just wants us off his hands.

Shall we not rest awhile, my dear,
Shall we not stop to rest?
I weaken mile by mile, my dear,
And still we travel West,
And still those looks that say: you're here
An uninvited guest.

Don't take it so to heart, my sweet,
Don't let it cloud your days.
If those dark looks should start, my sweet,
Don't mind their curious ways,
And should they curse when they should greet
Think naught of such displays.

But how shall we survive, my chuck,
These endless days and nights?
How keep our hopes alive, my chuck,
When black despair invites,
When it's our being out-of-luck
That brands us parasites?

Let's trust we're through the worst, my pet,
Let's trust there's light ahead;
Else it would seem we're cursed, my pet,
And dark-ward bound instead.
No cause for deathly thoughts just yet
Though some might wish us dead.

But that Home Office man, my love,
That man who spoke so soft,
He said we'd better plan, my love,
And then he sort-of coughed
As if to say: push come to shove
You'll both be upped and offed.

Don't worry about him, my dear,
Don't fret about him still.
He said it on a whim, my dear,
And didn't mean us ill,
Although the episode struck fear
In us, as these things will.

But that's the least of it, my sweet,
The least of all our woes,
For others say 'just quit', my sweet,
'Or we'll soon come to blows'.
They wear black t-shirts in the street
With words that punch your nose.

And there's the UKIP folk, my chuck,
Or hard-core Brexiteers,
Who'd kick us at a stroke, my chuck,
Beyond their state frontiers,
Or otherwise make sure we're stuck
In holding-cells for years.

It's here the seas run dry, my love,
It's here the lands run out.
We've fetched up you and I, my love,
And should we send a scout
Or else, like Noah, a questing dove
It might search far about.

For it's a shallow sea, my dear,
And it's an angry land,
And migrants – you and me, my dear –
Are so much contraband
Brought in by some smart racketeer
When there's the job-demand.

But here we'll have to wait, my sweet,
Just wait until they find
Some other folk to hate, my sweet,
And bring them peace of mind.
For hate-campaigns go down a treat
With fearful humankind.

So don't give in to rage, my chuck;
Don't give in to despair.
Just turn another page, my chuck,
To see what's written there
And try to make-believe we'll pluck
Some blessing from thin air.

O it’s white lies you tell, my love,
Yet lies so kindly meant
That when they cast their spell, my love,
I’m instantly content
To fancy all I'm dreaming of
Made true should fate relent.

Yet it’s just lies they told, my dear,
Not wishful truths but lies,
Those swine who had us sold, my dear,
On hell in heaven's guise,
And made this hostile zone appear
A haven in our eyes.

CN migrants life jackets cropped thumb large

To the Wife of an All-Too-Interventionist Foreign Secretary
Friday, 17 November 2017 09:45

To the Wife of an All-Too-Interventionist Foreign Secretary

Published in Poetry

To the Wife of an All-Too-Interventionist Foreign Secretary

by Chris Norris

Note: This piece is an updated reprise of Edgell Rickword’s mid-1930s poem ‘To the Wife of Any Non-Interventionist Statesman’. Rickword was addressing those mainly Conservative politicians who opposed sending military aid to the Republican Government in Spain on grounds of Britain’s supposed ‘neutrality’ in keeping with the policy of other European powers. This was in flagrant disregard of the fact that Germany and Italy were providing large amounts of logistical support to the rebel (Francoist or Fascist) side. 

So. Cut to Yemen, 2017.......

Bad form, I know, intruding thus on your
Most intimate proceedings at a time,
Of all times, when you'd wish to shut the door
On such intrusions, let alone what I'm
Proposing here. Just let me say, before
You cut short this rude visitant mid-rhyme,
That though it's something most folk might deplore,
And some would count a veritable crime,
Still certain faults may merit rather more
By way of censure, and - if my words chime
With your assessment - urge you to ignore
Your husband's overtures. So, should he climb

Into the marriage-bed and indicate
That maybe you'd now like to have a go
For old time's sake, so he can demonstrate
His undiminished powers, please let him know
It's just not on and that he'll have to wait
Till you've delivered him a blow-by-blow
Account of why you're dead set to frustrate
This new-found fervent craving to bestow
His favours nearer home. Affairs of state
Are more the sort of stuff you'll want to throw
At him than those affairs that hardly rate
Brief mention in the gossip-pages. So
Let me, your voice of conscience, intimate
Some counter-thoughts to interrupt the flow
Of pillow-talk that then begins to grate
Until you give that dolt the old heave-ho.

Past forty people tend to have the face
That they deserve, as Auden said - a bit
Unfair to some, perhaps, but just the place
To start in figuring how you'd better quit
His soon detested marital embrace
As the truth dawns. For it's a phizog fit
For detailed study should one wish to trace
The path by which this liar, hypocrite
And bully-boy outlived each new disgrace,
Each proven lie or piece of pure bullshit
Exposed, and, after letting in some space
Of time - alms for oblivion - strove to hit
The headlines once again. He'd join the race
As if from a fresh start, and so omit
To mention how he'd made a basket-case
Of every job for lack of mother-wit

Or through an ego whose enormous size
And utter lack of scruple left it prone
To all variety of tricks and lies,
The sort of thing he'd never quite outgrown
Since Oxford. They're presented in the guise
(As you'll best know) of one just lately flown
That second nest and not yet worldly-wise
Though quick enough, when his thin cover's blown,
To play the Bullingdon and exercise
The toff's old privilege of uttering bone-
Head platitudes that win the booby-prize
Except as judged by members of his own
Select bunch with their Oxford-nurtured ties
Of influence, patronage, and social tone.
They made sure he could never jeopardise
His chances through excess testosterone,

Stupidity, or (now you'll see just where
I'm coming from) his willingness to sell
This country down the river, bring despair
To countless migrant lives, make each day hell-
On-earth for starving Yemenis since they're
In line of fire for every British shell
Rained on them by the Saudis, do his share,
And more, in building up the current swell
Of fear-fed xenophobia, and prepare
The witches' brew of lies that cast its spell
On those without the time or thought to spare
For checking things. That's why they promptly fell
For every false prospectus he'd declare
With all the chutzpah of the ne'er-do-well
Street-trader trying to flog a dodgy pair
Of Levis to a cash-strapped clientele.

So when he next lets on he's keen to get
Back on connubial terms, or starts to press
The chat beyond a spot of tete-a-tete,
Please think - before allowing him to mess
With your sleep-patterns - how it might be met,
This fumbling boss-shot at a first caress,
By firm repudiation of your debt
To nature, custom or the old-style stress
On wifely duty. Then - to make him sweat -
Recount his sundry acts of boorishness,
Hypocrisy, self-interest, covert threat,
Bad faith, and willingness to acquiesce
In proven war-crimes. No cause for regret:
Think Lysistrata, watch him detumesce,
Then hit him with your choicest epithet
As he finds cause to rue his state of dress.



Letter to W. H. Auden
Tuesday, 03 October 2017 20:14

Letter to W. H. Auden

Published in Poetry

by Christopher Norris


This verse-letter is written in Rhyme Royal, the seven-line stanza-form (rhyming ababbcc) that goes back to some of the earliest English poetry and was taken up by W.H. Auden in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. The piece first appeared in Letters from Iceland (1937), a jointly-authored book by Auden and Louis MacNeice containing a mixture of verse and prose, travel-notes and politics, the serious and the anecdotal or skittish. My poem is addressed to Auden and talks about our current world-political scene in relation to likewise ominous developments during the 1930s. It emulates Auden’s way of mixing the formal with the casual and his knack of moving out, cinematic-style, from the personal or parochial to the global or world-historical.

(‘MacSpaunday’: collective name invented by Roy Campbell for the group of prominent left-leaning 1930s writers [mostly poets] which included Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Campbell was a right-wing poet and polemicist who meant nothing very kindly or affectionate by it. A quick Google search will help with ‘Chad Valley’ and other perhaps unfamiliar references.)


Forgive, dear Wystan, my presuming thus
To pinch your rhyme-scheme, though you can afford
To humour me or not make too much fuss
Since you first lifted it from Byron (Lord)
And took some other tricks of his on board
(Which I'll do here), like using verse to chat,
As mood suggests, concerning this and that.

Still, let’s admit the parallels extend
Beyond such formal matters to the fact
That you, back in the 1930s, penned
Those stanzas full of doubts and fears, though tact
As well as your un-Faustian poet-pact
With sage Apollo, god of form, required
That verse-craft quell what panic-state inspired.

You won’t believe it but, just eighty years
On from your time of writing, we’ve now got
A US president who brings those fears
Of yours right back to life and shows we’d not
Yet managed to dig out the fascist rot
You saw as enemy to all that stood
For civic virtue and the common good.

CN gop 2016 trump

You keep it up, that semi-jester role
Encouraged by the verse-form, but it’s hard
To keep up now, in part because a droll
Or laid-back style’s the standard calling-card
Of satire’s current leftist avant-garde,
And partly owing to the thought that it’s
Quite likely he’ll soon blow us all to bits.

You don’t yet know it, writing from your own
Mid-thirties standpoint, but they’ll fight and win
The war they strive by all means to postpone,
Those old appeasers whose pro-Hitler spin
On world affairs our Tory toffs begin
To try once more, kowtowing to a fool-
Cum-gangster bred up in the self-same school.

CN trump and may

You see them now, hot-footing it to pay
Their fawning overtures as soon as he’s
Installed as president, though really they
Just want to front the quisling queue and seize
This lucky chance to get down on their knees,
Kiss arse if needed, and declare that he’ll
Have their loyal backing after that trade-deal.

One thing the verse-form helps with, as you know,
Is how to handle the eight-decade lapse
Which gives us knowledge of the way things go
Post-'39 while your temporal maps
Have lots of ‘here be dragons’ blanks and gaps
Which we can now fill in with all the late-
Won wisdom brought by simple change of date.

This form’s a winner chiefly through its use
Of that capacious rhyme-scheme, plus the way
Its mix of formal structure with some loose
Or casual phrasing lets us have our say
About how you lot might have saved the day
But not risk sounding smug or acting wise
After events that matched your worst surmise.

Besides, what price the dubious benefit
Of our historic wisdom if we take
From it no more than an excuse to sit
Around composing verses, or to make
Your low decade our theme just for the sake
Of cranking out more poems that allow
Us more escape-routes from the here-and-now.

So not for us to tax that ’thirties crew
Of poet fellow-travellers with the crime,
If such it is, of having much to do
With ideas, words and clever turns of rhyme
But not with urgencies of place and time
That, so we judge, should properly demand
They exit poetry’s cloud-cuckoo-land.

That's why I’m not the least degree inclined
To join the Orwell-clones who now deplore
You and your generation, or who find
Self-love and self-advertisement, no more,
In those formalities devised to shore
Against your sense of a world-order gone
To pot: let good verse-manners carry on!

CN macspaunday

Yet getting old MacSpaunday off the hook
Is too much like extending special leave
To us, or promising to close the book
On our inaction just so long as we’ve
Made good our case for history’s reprieve
On grounds of service to the poet’s art
In homage to its formal world apart.

For – truth to tell – we now have far less scope
Than you for any self-defensive move
Which says that poetry’s our last, best hope,
That its constraints may help us jump the groove
Of prose-constricted habit, and so prove
Not just an action-blocking trick of thought
But one that brings bad action-plans up short.

The point is, we’ve your own example there
In front of us, your poems and the whole
Mind-set we call ‘The Thirties’, so you bear
The burden of our thinking how you might
Have done much more to carry forward the fight
From literary speech-act to the sphere
Of action where the world may lend an ear.

So, like I said, we’re all the more to blame
For blaming you yet failing still to learn
The lesson that you ‘thirties poets came,
In different ways, to mark as your great turn
Of life and thought, so that you’d either spurn
Much of your early work or make it known
That we should deem it kid’s stuff, long outgrown.

Not so, at least not always, so why strain
Credulity by asking us to twist
Our judgement round and treat your poem ‘Spain’,
That conscience-call, as if we’d somehow missed
Its glaring faults because they offered grist
To Orwell's tetchy mill and also fed
Your taste for giving self-reproach its head.

Always a flip-side, and for us it’s that
Temptation to indulge our own retreat
From deed to word or act to poem-chat
By totting up your moral balance-sheet
And fancying our tame versicles to meet
The kinds of standard you applied, not just
Late on but when your muse was more robust.

In short, no jacking up our feeble score
As activists or militants by dint
Of self-applied analogy with your
Half-century sustained poetic stint
And, more than that, your having left in print
So many poems that (late qualms aside)
Took politics and ethics well in stride.

Suppose our situations were reversed,
You looking back across the eight-decade-
Long interval and witnessing the worst
Of times again, what with this bottom-grade
Moronic US president who’s made
It clear he’ll kill all life on Earth through one
Means or another by the time he’s done.

CN north korea kim jong un donald trump nuclear threat uss john c stennis 584269

Just think (the implications won’t be lost
On you) how it’s within the power of this
Illiterate thug to start a war whose cost,
Should just a few ICBMs not miss
Their target, adds up to the thought-abyss
Of humankind extinct along with all
The arts and sciences on the small ball.

God knows, you had it bad back then, but think:
What shall they say of us who had the chance
To put a stop to him, that missing link
In modern guise, yet chose to look askance
At action-plans and cultivate a trance-
Like will to have no distant rumours spoil
Our peace with echoes of that mortal coil.

You’ve heard me out, and patiently, so I’ll
Not try your patience too far but remark,
For what it’s worth, that elements of ‘style’
(So-called) in your best poems strike a spark
Of shared humanity against the dark
And all-destructive potency that waits
On one man's word as will or whim dictates.

My point: you had the hint of gravitas,
The serious note, as in an end-of-term
School homily by one who might just pass
As Head-material, that it took to firm
Your satire up and make the guilty squirm,
Along with just the light touch to disarm
Our finely tuned self-righteousness alarm.

For, unlike some, you managed to hold out
Against the idea that satiric scorn,
Or saeva indignatio, had clout
Enough by fear of mockery to warn
The wicked off their ways so that, twice-born
At its dread summons, they confessed in full
How far they’d yielded to temptation’s pull.

Just think of Peter Cook (I know, he showed
Up decades later – Pete-and-Dud sketch guy),
And how he talked about the debt he owed,
As satirist, not just to Private Eye
But to those Berlin cabarets whose wry
Take on the 1930s did so much
To save the world from war and Hitler’s clutch.

No, satire’s not enough to show the likes
Of Trump in their true colours, or arouse
Such popular revulsion that he strikes
Them suddenly as just a big girl’s blouse
(Nice phrase – you’ll like it) and the people’s vows
Go up: God help us if we don’t get rid
Of this buffoon and mend the harm he did.

Allow me just one last attempt to nail
Down what I mean, although perhaps the drift
Is fairly clear: that poetry must fail
In times like yours and mine because the gift
Of words-in-order’s not a thing to lift
The curse of evil government or fill
Wrong-doers with a cautionary chill.

The formalist in you said poems had
No power to ‘make things happen’, since their place
Was ‘in the valley of their making’ – Chad
Valley, or so it seems – and lacked the space
For anything so brute or in-your-face
As politics, or palpable intent,
Or speech-acts of a world-transforming bent.

But that was you late on, when you’d long switched
Allegiances from Marx and Freud to God
With Freud as handy back-up, and so ditched
All thought of poetry as lightning rod
Or galvanizer for the ’thirties squad
Who had no time for any such divorce
Between the conjoint claims of form and force.

If you were sitting now in that ‘low dive
On 52nd Street’ and read a page
Or two of our news coverage, you’d arrive
At much the same conclusion: not an age
For private threnodies rehearsed offstage
But one that leaves the poets, now as then,
Lone formalists against the anchormen.

CN auden

The Trouble with Monsters
Saturday, 02 September 2017 12:55

The Trouble with Monsters

Published in Poetry

The Trouble with Monsters

by Chris Norris

Quick way with monsters: send a hero out
For mortal combat: sometimes he'll prevail
And kill the beast, while other times he'll fail
And it will be his death that ends the bout.

The point is, those old poets had it right,
Those Greeks, and Romans, and the guy (or guys)
Of Anglo-Saxon stock whose epic vies
With theirs as Beowulf goes forth to fight

First Grendel, then his mother, she whose sheer
Brute strength and monstrous bulk he hacks to death
But only to yield up his dying breath
In the last act of his renowned career.

cn beowulf

We have our modern monsters, but they tend
More often to emerge from some bad place
Within our home-domain, not some wild space
Beyond it where all codes and kinships end.

From every source these modern monsters spring:
From corporate culture, from the daily trade
In weapons of mass-murder, from the made-
To-measure ranks of lying hacks who bring

Our daily news, from the assorted fools
And rogues lined up for a safe Tory seat
Post-Oxbridge, or from teachers keen to beat
The kids just like in their old public schools.

CN bj 20145 Boris Johnson wins seat MP

But now we have new monsters of a kind
Unknown in earlier times because their lair
Is deep within a psychic space they share
With fifty million others of a mind

To have their worldview, politics, and sense
Of right and wrong conditioned daily by
The sorts of TV show that amplify
Bad vibes long quelled in reason's self-defence.

It's monstrous emanations such as these,
Rough beasts that slouch from all our TV screens,
Whose aspect takes us closest to those scenes
Of epic strife and somehow holds the keys

To all our deep-commingled dreads and fears,
As well as savage impulses that drive
The moguls and press-barons to connive
At each assault on decency's frontiers.

CN adolf hitler reichskanzler 1933

Our last real monster turned up nine decades
Back and did all the usual monster-stuff -
Killed millions out of some long-rankling huff,
Laid countries waste, recruited his brigades

Of street-thugs early on from folk bereft
Of money, life-hopes, pride, or self-respect,
And so, like Grendel, carried on unchecked
Till desperate remedies alone were left.

Now we've another monster on the loose,
One just as bad in many ways and worse
In some, since we've now further cause to curse
The advent of a president obtuse

And infantile enough to blow us all
To kingdom come if goaded by some stray
Remark, or say 'Just weather!’ come what may
Of hurricanes by way of wake-up call.

CN dt

We think 'if only', and routinely hold
Them in the highest honour, those who tried
But failed to stem the rising fascist tide
By monster-slaying, some of them extolled,

Like Bonhoeffer, as heroes with a claim
To sainthood while so many others, known
Or unknown to us, left their safety-zone
To venture on a last and lethal game.

Our current monster preys on all the ills
Of ignorance, stupidity, and greed
That fed his viewing-figures and his need
To see that every whim directly spills

Into the Twitter-sphere no matter if
It's sub-moronic, apt to spark a war,
Designed to show a hapless aide the door,
Or his last shot in some crass ‘fake news’ tiff.

Yet it's a case borne out by monsters down
From Roman times that they're no less a threat
To humankind for being apt to get
Their kicks in imbecilic ways, or clown

It up at just those times when all depends,
If not on their appearing wise or shrewd,
Then on their not indulging some wild mood-
Swing prone to make new enemies of old friends.

That Mark One monster might have been dispatched
At any time from nineteen-thirty-three
To forty-four, a fine thing – you'll agree –
Since who’d blame plotters for a game-plan hatched

To rid the world of one who, as things went
In brutal truth, survived to leave his mark,
As will this monster if left to embark
On half the crimes that seem his fixed intent?

That's why they got it right, those epic bards,
About what's best to do when monsters strike
And why perhaps, in special cases like
The present, it's the role of bodyguards,

Not some resurgent Beowulf, to show
The highest civic virtue and the sort
Of courage that inspired those long-ago
Folk-heroes to cut monster-stories short.

CN Karl Theodor von Piloty Murder of Caesar 1865


Grenfell: for the victims
Saturday, 26 August 2017 15:38

Grenfell: for the victims

Published in Poetry

Author's Note: Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979) was a British actor, singer and stage entertainer who specialised in comic monologues and achieved huge popularity in the decades following World War Two. Among her best-known imaginary monologue-speakers was a teacher of very young children, among them George who was more than once asked to stop doing something (nature undisclosed). Grenfell Tower was named in her memory.

George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 2010 and 2016. He – or his advisors – promoted the drastic and divisive creed of ‘austerity’ that inflicted great damage on many aspects of British social, communal and political life. The cuts to local authority spending on health and safety regulation were adduced by some as having contributed to the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower.


'George, don't do that': Joyce Grenfell in the role
Of hard-pressed infant teacher, trying not
To let it get her down or lose control,
But at a stage where things have clearly got
Just a bit much and now she's left in sole
Charge of this endlessly demanding lot
Of noisy five-year-olds. What really stole
The show was having listeners wonder what
He, George, was doing and how she'd cajole
Him out of doing it, first by a spot
Of gentle blandishment, then, as the toll
On her nerves grew, by adding just a shot
Of reprimand, and lastly – as the whole
Class seemed to sense a lesson gone to pot –
By one more plea before the bell, with droll
Yet perfect timing, closed her lesson-slot.

'George, don't do that': don't give us all that spiel
About austerity, the debt, how we're
'All in this thing together', or how we'll
Just have to pull our belts in and adhere
To your fine plan for cutting a great deal
With your old banker pals. We've done 'austere'
For long enough to guess it's us who'll feel
The pinch alright and them who'll stand to clear
A fortune when the billions you steal
From those who put the work in yield their year-
On-year fat bonus. Know what made it real,
What brought it home, that sense we had of sheer
Unutterable rage? That you could seal
Your devil's pact and no one interfere
To bring those crooks to justice or reveal
The swindle in a reckoning more severe.

'George, don't do that': for Christ's sake don't pretend
You haven't grasped the Grenfell link, or take
The standard Tory view that one can bend
The safety rules and regs for profit's sake
So long as those affected are low-end
In status terms, with no financial stake
Or friends and influence that might extend
Beyond their local patch. And, just to make
The point more plainly: when the plan’s to spend
A bit less on the stuff for those fire-break
Partitions in the high-rise towers, or mend
The cracks less frequently, it's in the wake
Of all your government directives penned
By jobsworth types who know just how the cake
Gets sliced. Losers and immigrants, my friend:
Don’t fret too much if cladding starts to flake.

You'll do that, George, you'll let the paupers fry
(Crass metaphor: forgive the vulgar taste)
So long as they're the ones who just get by,
Or don't, while you and your lot are well-placed
To fix it so that no-one gets a try
At changing things. If we lament the waste
Of talents, lives, or chances not to die
A needless death because you lot embraced
'Austerity', then no doubt you'll reply
With some glib chunk of right-wing wisdom based
On trickle-down. This aims to justify
What's really plain old dog-eat-dog showcased
In think-tank talk to stop us asking why
They've not run riot, those survivors faced
With the charred tower each day while some rich guy
Like you says let's not act with too much haste.

But how to stop you, George, how make the kind
Of full-scale revolution that they’ll need,
Those tenants yet to come, if we're to find
Some remedy for scenes like this and heed
The hard-won lesson that it leaves behind,
That blackened witness to the Osborne creed
That, by malignant chemistry, combined
Mammon with Moloch, your sharp-suited greed
With everything the system does to grind
Its victims down. But then, a point that we'd
Do well to keep continually in mind
Is how keen the survivors were to lead
Discussion back to life-hopes intertwined
With Grenfell Tower and show how we'll misread
Their testimony should our anger blind
Us to the fact that those hopes may succeed

Despite the heaviest odds. That's because they're
Flat contrary to every point of your
Unspoken doctrine: that the poor should bear
The greatest burden just because they're poor,
Or just because they've not yet done their share
To fill the vast tax-coffers destined for
Long-planned redistribution on the fair
(By your lights) principle which goes: the more
Ye have, the more shall what ye have declare
You worth ten times as much. The Grenfell score
Looks bad on your side, George, if we compare
Your moral credit-rating (through the floor!)
To high-rise tenants with no cash to spare
Yet with the guts and dignity to shore
Against disaster. 'Ta'en too little care'
You have, like Lear; these deaths you can't ignore.




The Greatest Gift of Boris J: A New Dunciad
Tuesday, 06 June 2017 15:13

The Greatest Gift of Boris J: A New Dunciad

Published in Poetry

The Greatest Gift of Boris J:
a New Dunciad

by Christopher Norris

The greatest gift of Boris J
Was having lots of things to say
That sounded smart but very soon
Revealed him as a prize buffoon.
His father quickly saw the boy
Was most unlikely to enjoy
Preferment of the kind that came
Of native wit, since just the same
Perception had compelled his Dad
To say of him: 'a splendid lad
But thick as two short planks'. Still he'd
Got on alright, maintained the breed,
Produced son Boris, raised the kid
To do the sorts of things he did,
Like spouting nonsense long and loud
To wow the plebs or please the crowd,
And made of him, in short, a fine
Addition to the family line.

          But every idyll has an end,
And so the time arrived to send
This none-too-promising young chap
Somewhere to plug the three-year gap
Between school and whatever kind
Of job Dad's city friends could find
To put his way. In short, he'd not
The brains to mix it with a lot
Of clever kids from grammar-school
Or comprehensive whom he'd fool
With one of his set-piece displays
Of blustering, but who might raise
Some question as to whether he,
That loud-mouthed bully-boy, should be
Received amongst them in a place
Of higher learning. Such disgrace,
His father feared, could so affect
Poor Boris that it wholly wrecked
His chance of spending those three years
On sundry ways to keep his peers
From finding out the little trick
He'd learned for not appearing thick.

          So off he went to Oxford where,
Great tricksters all, they didn’t care
Too much about the curious lack
Of evidence with which to back
The perfect self-assurance that
Came of his having got off pat
The sorts of stuff that went down well
With tutors not allowed to sell
A place at college but inclined
To favor those with whom they wined
And dined. The trick: pretend that you're
A clever chap who knows the score
Alright, but just pretends he's dumb
For laughs, though really (as they'd come
To know if things went wrong) you played
The game of a buffoon who made-
Believe he’d brains enough to take
A jester's role. If he could fake
It well enough then soon he'd get
The hoi polloi onside and let
Them count him just a harmless clown
While commentators had him down,
Obligingly, as more clued-
Up inverse Coriolanus who'd
The vulgar turn of speech to bring
The mob on board but the true ring,
To ears attuned, of one whom it
Best suited now to play the pit
Against the gallery. He’d show
(For those onlookers in the know)
How the best minds could always hide
Their true intent or send us wide
Of it if we’re the sorts of folk
Not smart enough to get the joke.

          Yet knowing types were taken in,
Just like the mob, because their spin
Was one that opted to rehearse
The Boris line, not its reverse.


Else they’d have quickly found him out
A genuine fool (of this no doubt)
Though one who opted to regale
The world with an unending tale
Of follies that could only strike
His classy chums as too much like
Their own for them to think of him,
The Johnson chap, as simply dim.
That’s why their preferential view
Revealed a brilliant thinker who
Exploited every chance to sus
His various publics out, and thus
Did more than anyone to keep
The dogs of class-war safe asleep.

          His father realized early on
That fortune had not blessed his son
With brains enough to make the grade
Against those upstart sons of trade
Who nowadays aspired so far
Above their station as to bar
The Boris-types from grabbing all
The academic prizes. 'Call
Me prejudiced', Dad said, 'but I'm
Resolved my idiot son will climb
As high as I did up the tree
Of unearned wealth and stand, like me,
Foursquare on privilege and rank.
Not like those redbrick kids who bank
On brains to get them good degrees
Instead of knowing how to please
Some well-placed person who can tip
His friend the wink or quietly slip
A word into the Master's ear.
He’ll see exams don't interfere
With the arrangements put in place
To make quite sure we don’t debase
The currency by letting brain,
Not wealth, direct the gravy-train.’                                             


          Then Father, warming to his theme,
Worked up a further head of steam
As he recalled again how his
Own alma mater did the biz
For Boris, let him in with no
Hard questions asked, refused to toe
The line on widening access, and
Allowed him full scope to expand
His range, not of ideas or thoughts
But handy friends. They were the sorts
(His Dad reflected with a sense
Of grateful pride) who’d recompense
Their pal with favors far beyond
Whatever hike might correspond
To coming out with a starred First,
The prize for nerdy blokes who nursed,
So Dad assumed, some petty grudge
Against the rich. This made them drudge
Long hours in libraries instead
Of making friends, getting ahead,
And plugging any deficit
Of intellect or mother-wit
With smooth talk of the kind that went
A whole lot further to augment
The family fortunes. Yes, they still
Found a few scholarships to fill
With all those intellectual types
Or state-school kids. Whence all the gripes
About the sorts of rowdy stuff
That happened when the fights got rough,
Or when the Bullingdons decreed
Some hapless scholar had no need
Of trousers, books, or things defined
As smacking too much of the mind
In quiet revolt against the brute
Assertion of a creed to suit


That drunken mob. But it's a case,
Here as in all things, of 'the race
Goes to the fittest', which translates
In Boris-speak as: choose your mates
With care and then they'll help you fix
Things up – friends, enemies, odd tricks
To balance books, a bob or two
In leaner times, and chaps to do
The necessary when it comes
To stuff best handled by your chums
Like claiming debts, or settling scores
With bigger blokes, or routine chores
Like squaring chappies who don't quite
Latch on. Those chappies may be bright
Yet miss the finer points involved
In how such matters get resolved
Amongst the smart set who've received
Their drill in what to do when peeved
By such slight upsets. 

                              That’s the best
Thing about Oxford and the test
Of how much it can do to boost
Your real life-chances, get you used
To spieling confidently when
You’re talking utter tripe, and then –
Should some smart-arse presume to take
You up on it – get chums to break
A bone or two. They’ll help repair
The social breach lest more of their
Prerogatives be stolen by
Those pushy redbrick alumni.


Thus Dad again: 'Think, if you will,
How vain the effort to instil
Wisdom or knowledge in a mind
As primitive and unrefined
As that which he inherited,
My son, from ancestors long dead
And brought to that pluperfect stage
Where his meanderings let us gauge
How far it’s gone, our family tree,
In its decline to idiocy.
Those Oxford tutors know the ropes;
They get their share of wealthy dopes
And so adjust their teaching plan
To suit the individual man
(I'm told some colleges accept


Girl students now, but that's best kept
Well under wraps).

                 Where was I? Yes,
His Oxford tutors took a guess
That Boris likely wouldn't shine
In scholarship but might do fine
In other ways if they could build
Constructively on unfulfilled
Potential and so stretch his few
Poor talents till one hardly knew
How few and poor they were. The task
Was somewhat eased, in case you ask,
By his strong tendency to big
Them up and then, should someone twig
How perfectly absurd the boast,
Repeat it louder till the most
Determined sceptic had to stop
His ears and let the matter drop.

          That gift they cultivated, plus
His way of making a great fuss
About his always being right
On every topic. This despite
His almost always being wrong,
Which didn't much affect the song
And dance he made or help him learn
From his mistakes, unless to turn
The volume up and shout them down,
Which hugely bolstered his renown
Among the likewise challenged bunch
Of hangers-on. They had a hunch
That this might be their own best way
Of keeping mockery at bay,
This Boris-wheeze of talking crap
But getting everyone to lap
It up because he put in lots
Of pompous words and filled the slots
That English nonsense failed to reach
With foreign nonsense. This they’d teach
Him every day, his tutors, so
That soon he’d be prepared to go
Out in the world and not let on
How dense he was.

              The handiest con-
Trick was the schoolboy one that took
No more than a quick, furtive look
For Latin tags or quotes. These fall
Conveniently to hand on all
Occasions when one’s tried and failed
To think of something that availed
Last time to hide one’s total lack
Of gumption. Plus it takes a smack
At those who’ve missed out on the rich
And many-sided culture which
Lies open solely to the sons
Of privilege. For they’re the ones –
Contest it as you will – whose sense
Of taste and native competence
Allows them that especial ease
Of access that the legatees
Of vulgar ignorance should just
Accept since their condition must
Exclude them from the magic zone
Where class and classics greet their own.


            So thought his Dad, though that old block
The chip was off maintained his stock
Response whenever someone had
The cheek to call his son a cad.
Else they might raise the question why
He sounded such a clever guy,
With all those long words and his air
Of having such a natural flair
For languages, yet somehow got
Mixed up when faced with on-the-spot
Collocutors who went off-script
Or TV panellists who quipped
About him in satiric mode,
Thus disrespecting every code
Of media etiquette. This left
The poor lad totally bereft
Of words beyond the tongue-tied yawp
Or snorts of rage at which they'd gawp,
Those interviewers prone to think
Him super-smart since told to link
Up with his media-savvy team
Of PR heavies whose regime
Imposed strict limits on the scope
For doubt. For it's a slippery slope
From slight misgivings they might feel
To counting him an imbecile
And so thenceforth according scant
Attention to his mindless rant.

             All this his father deemed a mere
Reflection of the need to sneer
At intellects above their own
Among the rabble, or those known
As rabble-rousers in the crew
Of ex-chums. Must be that lot who
Spread all the nasty stuff around
Announcing that he'd now been found
A fool, an ignoramus, and
The kind of bloke they couldn't stand
To think they’d just last week embraced
As sharing their superior taste.

Truth is, Dad wasn't quite immune
To doubts on that score, but would soon
Suppress them when some cheeky cub
Reporter took his chance to rub
It in that his fine son was (let's
Say) just the sort of chap who gets
Thrown out of parties, or the sort
Who seems a few IQ points short
Of normal, or who, every time
He speaks, commits some hideous crime
Against the English Language. Still,
Though Dad had learned the put-down drill
To send them packing, he could not
Conceive what might have been his lot
In life, young Boris, had the fates
Withheld that gift which compensates
For defects of the mind or soul
With other benefits. These stole
A march on all the clever blokes,
Or nice-guy types, or other folks
More able but less well supplied
With skin like a rhinoceros-hide
And lacking his protective gift
Of being not the least bit miffed
At satire's barbs since wadded thick
So even the sharpest didn't stick.

            'Full many a flower is born to blush',
And all that, but before they rush
To judgment – so his father thought –
Perhaps those social levellers ought
To count the cost in man-hours spent
By Oxford tutors eminent
Enough to land themselves a post
At seats of learning coast to coast,
Yet now with naught to exercise
Their minds save trying to devise
New ways to keep a nincompoop
In check. Else he’d provide some scoop
For paparazzi keen to bite
The hand that any moment might
Give one of them a story sure
To hit the headlines and procure
Such short-lived fame as comes to those
Who hardly need to hold their nose
When tailing Boris. For the smell
Brings promise of more tales to tell
And lets them know, should any doubt
Remain, that they have all the clout
In market terms since no one reads
The nice stuff. Plus, raw sewage needs
At least as much disposal-care
As those choice items fit to share
With readers whose more sensitive
Olfaction means they’re apt to give
Both Boris and the hacks who thrive
On him scant licence to connive
At further lowering the tone
By any standard but their own.


          And so once more: ‘Where was I? Must
Have gone a bit off-topic just
When I got to that handy quote
From Gray, you know, the one who wrote
The Country Churchyard thing – but damn
Me, what a foolish chap I am
To keep on getting sidetracked. Three
Times now I’ve tried to say that he,
My Boris, isn’t half as bad,
As stupid, or as raving mad
As some make out, and every time
For some odd reason – one that I’m
Not up to sorting out – I veer
Off course and make the boy appear
A dunce, a cad, a perfect fool,
A dolt, a semi-witting tool
Of racists, and a chap you’d go
Long ways around to miss or throw
Clean off your trail. For should you meet
He’ll probably be quick to greet
You like a bosom-pal, until
You mention some outstanding bill,
At which he rings his city mates,
Informs them loudly how he hates
Your guts, then – like as not – just hints
He’d like to see your legs in splints.

          But that’s enough – can’t keep on track
As planned but will keep circling back
To all those things that I’d prefer
To brush aside yet still occur
Unbidden to me as I strain
And fail, and strain, and fail again,
Fail worse this time, to stick up for
That boy of mine and so restore
The family name. Truth is, it’s too
Much, even for a father who
Devoutly wishes to defend
His only son, this need to bend
The factual evidence so far
As to make Boris out the star
Yet helpless victim of a vile
Conspiracy with all the bile
That comes the way of anyone
As rich and famous as my son.

          But no, the truth will out: they're right,
And I'll acknowledge it despite
This vain attempt of mine to press
A case for the defence. Why stress
The soft stuff like paternal love
And private loyalty above
The rival claims of civic good
Or common decency that should,
So we're instructed, come to guide
Our acts and choices once untied
From those rogue impulses that rule
Our hearts and minds until we school
Them in more adult ways? Not my
Strong suit, this stuff, although I try
To take the Creon view and see
The problem with Antigone,
If you'll excuse the sharp descent
From their sublime predicament
To how I stall and beat about
The bush. Why can’t I come right out
With what I should have said straight off:
That Boris is the kind of toff
Who gets us fellows a bad name?

          Let’s face it, he’s the one to blame
If things go wrong with our old trick
For pleb-appeal. That lets us click,
Us Grade A types, with all those folk,
The Ds and Es, who like a bloke
Much classier than the Bs and Cs
Since quite at liberty to please
Himself in all he says or does,
Like setting lots of ears abuzz
With gibes about the middling sort
Of social climber. Why comport
With rules of decency or tact
Devised by parties to a pact
The main effect of which has been
To keep the have-nots off the scene,
As well as haves with wealth enough
(Inherited) to tell them: stuff
Your bourgeois virtues, stand aside,
And see us jump the class-divide
From A to E. But now he’s blown
The gaff, my wretched boy, and shown
That up as just the kind of ruse
That chaps like us will always use
To dupe the very folk who’d stand
To gain the most if our old brand
Of fake class-hopping were exposed
For what it is. So, chapter closed:
Just have to have to find another way
To con them, fight another day,
And forge anew the ancient bond
Of foule esclave and beau monde.

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