I have always loved scuff graffiti. Nothing too artful. I like it when it’s someone with a large black marker, scrawling their fury on a toilet wall.
Until August I lived in an end-of-terrace Victorian back-to-back in Leeds. A regeneration project was trying to get members of the community to redecorate the binyards to look like small gardens, but they were still full of bins so it didn’t really work. The bingarden next to me was where various kids would hang out, chatting, chewing, smoking, laughing, fighting and writing on the walls.
It all started when Keeley, Adele and Fozia wrote that they were chillin 07. Unimpressed, my neighbour waited until they had left and then wrote Turner Prize Entry? underneath. Equally unimpressed, Keeley, Adele and Fozia returned two days later to write, Wot U on about, we dont understand u fik c*** (they didn’t use asterisks, but I’m aware that children use the internet). After he corrected their grammar with a red felt pen, they added the graffiti that won my heart: Talk English its are country.
There’s so much to love about that phrase. The lost apostrophe; the fact that English is not our country; the fact that on that street alone there was a Malaysian family, a Chilean couple whose son was born in Germany and would talk in one of three languages, and three South Indian families, plus myself and my housemate, both English by birth and recent heritage, neither if you go back more than three generations. Personally, I’ve always found national identity a bit puzzling. Morrissey (patron saint of the back bedroom and my idol from the ages of 17-21) went a bit wayward last year and grizzled to the NME about the loss of the British identity. Catch up, Moz – to me at least, the concept of the British identity was created by a bunch of people who were interested in drawing lines and creating strict definitions. We do this this and this, so we are English, you do this this and this, so you aren’t. If you believe in evolution, do you not believe in the evolution of national identity? That it changes and develops with the people that come to this country and the people that leave it? People like Morrissey, who moved to LA in 1992? (These are not rhetorical.)
Mostly what I liked about the phrase was that Keeley, Adele and Fozia felt able to write it without a second’s thought. They saw no problem in writing that they were chillin 07 in the first place. Morrissey felt able to talk rubbish in a national publication. I feel able to say he was talking rubbish. Because what we do have in the UK is a decent degree of freedom of speech. It’s such a part of our daily mindset that it doesn’t even occur to us. Keeley, Adele and Fozia weren’t afraid to express it in permanent fashion on the side of my house. We have the liberty of being able to question how much of it we have. We’ve even started to abuse it.
This is why I am excited to be learning about and discussing freedom of speech over the course of Poetry International. One of the poets taking part, Tomas Venclova, was studying in his native Lithuania when he was forced to put university on hold because his literary activities became “forbidden”. (Fozia, Keeley and Adele certainly wouldn’t have been able to write nationalistic statements such as talk Lithuanian its are country on the walls). Reading Venclova reminded me of when I saw Being Harold Pinter by the Belarusian Free Theatre. Free in two ways: it cost me nothing, but it was liberating for the actors to perform, because in Belarus their brand of theatre is illegal. They perform in secret places around their home city – a graveyard, a disused building – and you have to illicitly get in touch with them to be told when and where it will happen, to avoid police detection. They dare to deconstruct their government and question the way things are run, therefore they are criminals.
Venclova’s poetry has a similar drive to it – a member of the Soviet underground in the 50s and 60s, he emigrated in the 70s, and he wrote honestly throughout. In his poem ‘The Émigré’, he refers to “home” as “the deserted zone of shop windows and underpasses”. Something you look into from the outside, and something you travel through beneath the ground. In the next stanza, home is “where neither prison walls, / nor newspaper columns change”. “Evil never disappears,” he writes in another poem, ‘Uzupis’, “but one can at least strive to dispel blindness – / and poetry is more meaningful than dreams.” Then there’s this, from ‘On a Mountain Ridge Near Jordan’:
I have never seen the Promised Land.
Sired on foreign soil, with an alien name,
I heard it from an elderly wet nurse
(perhaps my very mother) who was born
as well to a house of bondage
I particularly admire the subtle smartness with which he slips the length of time that people in his home country have been suffering – an elderly wet nurse, remembered by a man now in his 70s. But still. Here is a poet whose literary studies were banned, who left his country, using his freedom of expression to say: this is what it is like to live without freedom of expression.
“Changing continents doesn’t eclipse pain,” Venclova says in ‘The Émigré’. Someone really should tell Morrissey.