Margaret Thatcher’s Museum
by Antony Owen
A stirring pamphlet of contemporary poetry, at once scathing, damning and life-affirming on the state of modern Britain viewed through the scope of history.
While the title of the pamphlet takes its name from the museum proposed by Thatcherite apologists (an idea about as tasteful to members of the working classes who lost their jobs in that era as holocaust jokes to Auschwitz survivors) However, Antony has said that MTM is not really about Margaret Thatcher herself, more the period of British history which she ruled over. Although, she is present throughout, from foreign policy aggression to economic collapse and elitist middle-class stagnation that followed. In fact, it contains a series of short, sharp riffs on atrocities, at home and abroad, events that have thrown people apart and the vital roots of everyday, blue-collar life that bring them together again.
In saying this, the poems veer from a clearer almost nostalgic past, when lines were more easily drawn, to modern-day conflicts (re)presented in a digital age, and the neo-liberal agenda that currently pervades. Antony sweeps from the individual on the street, with direct, neat lines, his ideal audience, to wider situations that implicate us all.
In, Fishing in the DMZ, Antony picks apart the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War, an attack that much like the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam, is believed to have intensified sabre-rattling. The drowning of the victims is described in immersive nautical terms where they are made one with the tomb of the sea:
Watch these bobbing floats
the retching porpoise of hull
rejoice for the dot has gone.
The poem tackles the traditional version of events as an act of British defence of the Falklands, not an aggressive act of imperialistic landgrabbing (underlinging the acquisitive mood of the era), highlighting the loss of life of enemy troops who were mostly conscripts, the sinking of the Belgrano itself being a celebrated act of military defiance, typified by Margaret Thatcher’s jingoistic Churchillian political stance – just as ridiculous as it sounds…
Sometimes Antony matches the sloganeering style of the modern age, as with Kim Kardashian Broke The Internet, fighting fire with fire to demand attention, skating the thin ice between meaning and irrelevance of that particular attention-seeking multi-media node. The lines filter through like Google search results, newspaper headlines, parallel images jostling for position among the quick flight attention span, media-saturated audiences – all lost in themselves – there is cruel and stark irony in the line:
A badger is culled by a hearse.
With pinpoint accuracy, Antony draws out the cruelty of man’s inhumanity to man, from the macro to the global, a perpetuation of indifference typified in The Selfridges Hotel, that discusses the common practice of defensive architecture spikes installed on ledges to prevent homeless people sleeping outside buildings:
A moved-on woman moved her nameless day to Costa
Costa being an equally faceless and ubiquitous body as the woman who wanders in their, ignored, seeking shelter. The tone of “Selfridges” chimes neatly with “selfish” throughout the poem, as people look inwards at their own lives, blocking out unpleasant sights right in front of them.
Antony identifies with working-class histories and this is present throughout the book where he displays an empathy for people downtrodden but not yet beaten, as represented by the cover, Antony’s fingerprint is embedded in the DNA of the poetry – he points out injustices that flare-up inside all of us, but are just as easily brushed to one side.
Poems, such as The Man Who Ate The World (after Fred Voss) mark a departure in style with an increasingly beat, prose-poem direction. In the truest sense of its original 50s incarnation before the beatnik media whitewash that gutted , the people are beaten but remain beatific in vision, and the urgent rhythms of run-on sentences that strike breathlessly through fleeting scenes of degradation and resilience – for me, the book has more than its share of sparkling lines:
If our roads were flesh they would be lifelines of migrant’s hands painting asphalt […]
And the indelibly acute:
If our sky was for sale the stars would be sued by Murdoch for breach of copyright.
In poetic terms, Antony’s writing seems to run a course, parallel to that of Shane Meadows’ early films and his continuing television work of This Is England; the flipside of the day-glo, yuppie success bleeding into excess, scenes from cities forgotten by industry, and commemorated only as victims.
Ferries brings out the open wound of the Hillsborough disaster re-imagined as sinking ship with waves of bodies overcome at meeting the swell of the Mersey. He evokes the silenced voices, finally given justice and the recurring ghosts left unsettled by repeat enquiries, scoping a brief tragedy through a prism of years:
They dug for decades with the shards of an hourglass
unearthing the vital minutes.
MTM strikes a neat genealogy through every one of Antony’s publications to date (MTM is his fourth) – fatherhood, death of industry and the bonds of family recurring as in the closing poem, The Little Things Destroy Us – a great title that speaks volumes for the pamphlet as a whole – with stanzas such as:
That black leg Easter you wept,
Thatcher glided in a Daimler
like spit on union coats.
Up against the personal and minute:
Childhood was a magic trick,
it vanished with the work,
sometime in the Eighties.
Margaret Thatcher’s Museum is neither an apology for worse times, nor an expectation of better ones, but it is a show of resilience against a quiet tyranny gently massing, a warning call not to let the bastards grind you down.
Margaret Thatcher’s Museum
by Antony Owen
Hesterglock Press (2015)
And here’s a song…