A review of Antony Owen’s Margaret Thatcher’s Museum.
(Hesterglock Press 2015)
by John Davies
That black leg Easter you wept,
Thatcher glided by in a Daimler,
Like spit on union coats.
The little things destroy us
A weight of history rests on Antony Owen, not just in this missile of a pamphlet, a real sett of poems, but also in his name.
“Mark Antony’s family traced its origin to an otherwise unknown son of Heracles named Anton.” Paul Zanker writes in The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. “He used the identification with Heracles to best effect as the macho soldier fraternizing with his men.” The name was spelled without the ‘h’ until the 17th century as in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. According to urbandictionary.com “an Antony is someone who deliberately says or does whatever it takes to piss you off.”
Owen is the anglicized version of the Welsh name Owain. The most celebrated is Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to be Prince of Wales who fought a long campaign of rebellion against English rule.
According to babycenter.com, Owen means “young warrior” or “well born”.
Poetry warrior Antony Owen certainly lives up to his name.
These thoughts were prompted by a memory of Paul Muldoon’s essay in his book, The End of the Poem, Oxford Lectures on Poetry, on the significance of her name to the poet Marianne Moore. More relevantly, in another essay Muldoon quotes a New York Times interview where Robert Lowell describes the impulse that “when private experience converges on the nation’s experience you feel you have to do something.”
That impulse runs through Owen’s collection lobbed at the establishment whether poetic or social: a cobble, though far from cobbled together.
But while the ostensible themes and targets are public and political, beneath the surface of these poems is much that is personal. The private and national converge.
The pamphlet’s title – and what a great, topical title it is – refers to the planned £15 million Margaret Thatcher Museum, or Margaret Thatcher Centre. In its call for support the Centre website claims “She delivered. Now it’s our turn.” It goes on to state that “As well as serving as a source of education on Lady Thatcher herself, the Centre will also offer an insight into the UK in the 1980s and the role of Prime Minister in the UK.”
Antony’s pamphlet is a sparky intervention, flipping the story pov to that of a youngster growing up in the Coventry of the late seventies and eighties with a blue collar father who works at the Jaguar in Browns Lane.
The poems are preceded by some brief contextualising notes about Exhibits, such as Exhibit B: “ ‘The whole of the Midlands is a Thatcher Museum, she bloody made it.’ Self-made businesswoman at a bar in Coventry.” And Exhibit D: “ ‘ …there won’t be no fifteen million quid spent on a miners museum.’ Ex-miner, currently on zero hours contract.”
(miners is an example of Antony’s idiosyncratic punctuation, by the way. Apostrophes tend to be erratic. Perhaps a good proofreader would have helped but the grammatical inconsistencies in his work are somehow part of his fabric and character, in a Billy Childish kind of way.)
Here I need to declare an interest.
Firstly I’m a Midlander, born and bred a Brummie. My mother’s family had been silversmiths in Birmingham since the 17th century. For me Birmingham was and is the capital city of a region called The Midlands. We were neither North nor South but had and have just as much definition and strength of character.
In 1980 I first went to the Jaguar plant at Browns Lane in Coventry, working for my father’s audio-visual production company. In the boardroom I pitched and won the account and proceeded to work with Jaguar on all kinds of projects – from car launches to racing films – for the next ten years. My time working with Jaguar ran parallel with Thatcher’s time in office.
In particular, my work involved communication with the workforce by the emerging company’s board, as it moved from being a drab manufacturing facility under the British Leyland banner back to Jaguar Cars Limited. I became a propaganda storm trooper for the new regime, writing scripts and directing films aimed at showing ordinary working people the dangers of poor product quality in an age of global competition and to encourage pride in work. I went on to work on similar projects with similar aims in shipbuilding and other industries. Of course, the ultimate objective was privatisation. Improved quality and a compliant workforce were an essential ingredient of share value.
Antony’s collection therefore provides me with a parallel and challenging text for my own life experience.
I was first introduced to Antony’s work by Bernadette Cremin and went on to publish his pamphlet The Dreaded Boy and his collaboration with Joseph Horgan The Year I Loved England with Pighog.
His work has always had a quality I’ve come to think of as knapped, like a stone flint. Just as a knapper shapes a stone tool by striking and knocking, so Antony both artfully and artlessly fashions his poems through word collisions, and image impacts – literally striking images.
From white flowers of hoarfrost
you watch cinders of starlings
turn pages of hymnbook sky and
throw your sister into the moon.
Kim Kardashian broke the Internet
Here too you can also hear the way Antony creates the music and rhythm of his poems through their sonority – sounds knapped into place throughout the poem, though not all hard and short.
… a fox spills the guts of a bin bag
a badger is culled by a hearse.
Kim Kardashian broke the Internet
This knocking sonority is also reflected in the way Antony often ‘knocks on’ an image towards another a few words on. For example, in the following:
In foothills of his alp white beard you
swam depths of those sad blue pools and
surfaced as a boy lost in the broken glass of space.
these connectors knock on to each other and interweave:
foothills – alp – depths – lost
swam – depths – blue pools – surfaced – lost
white – blue
I think the unconscious effect, often in poems with a pastoral lean, can be of a machine performing a regular repeating function that then creates a kind of background industrial hum, the very thing that has diminished so much in Britain since 1980, as here with:
walk – wandering – paths – lead – slow
trees – tree – leaves – nutkins
un-building – wheels – moving – clock – slow
wheat – harvest – shepherd – fields – harvest – hectares
Let us walk under trees un-building the city in us,
these wheels of wheat are moving us to harvest the tree that bleeds our little
outcasts, back up leaves to nutkins split from cots, a bit like us
wandering four on paths that lead us to shepherd cumulus, and
blue fields of sky we forget to harvest in the clocks slow hectares.
The loch we left our city in
In Margaret Thatcher’s Museum, this technique is used to great effect in a display of poems around different core themes, with the effects ‘knocking on’ – multiplying and ricocheting within and across the different poems.
If I were writing the Interpretation Panel for Antony’s Museum, I would say that at the most accessible level, the themes include diversity, the homeless, the jobless, the decline of the blue collar working class, urban life, children and parents. They interweave through the poems and provide access and handholds of meaning.
After shifts I watched my Dad take deep breaths by the gate,
looking for the son in himself so he could pal as sky broke,
and he broke, with half price bread that smelt of turmeric.
The Cold War
But there are some deeper themes that stood out for me. Winter and winter weather are present in a number of the poems, perhaps reflecting the perceived winter of Thatcher’s time in office, the slow freezing of working class credit and the burying of working class protest beneath a drift of legislation and propaganda.
After shifts I wanted to be like my Dad and bend things with fire
but something made the snowman collapse into itself whilst smiling,
it was a bit like all of us that winter in nineteen eighty two.
The Cold War
Here there’s also the decline and transfiguration of the traditional working class hero, the de-manning of factories and the un-manning of men who drew their identities from strength and manual labour.
This is reflected in Antony’s rhythms that flux between the harder iamb and the more uncertain, tentative anaepest.
I once made an angel from a half smoked Marlboro,
wanted to be just like Matty’s Dad
a Steve McQueen of cul de sacs
riding through the prison.
Growing up like Steve McQueen
Mothers and Fathers feature strongly. Perhaps this collection is Antony’s eulogy and elegy for both his parents.
I was the son of an unremarkable woman
who wanted to be clever but a Mother more,
yeah; I was the son of a song never heard.
The Other Iron Lady
There’s a lot of love here too – of family and friends.
You captured the newts from the broken glass
the brook where the ammonia mixes with pansies
this place that was shortlisted for Brum in bloom
yet you were the man who shot Birmingham and it lived.
The man who shot Birmingham and it lived
A recurring image is of birds, who sing a flurry of commentary throughout the poems. Birds are very present – even through the winter poems. Bird images feature in fourteen or more out of twenty-five poems. There are redshanks and penguins, sparrows and doves, blackbirds and starlings.
I loved the phrase ‘a quink of blackbirds’ and I loved the way birds crop up in the unlikeliest of places.
You captured the cage and set free the Magpie
Wedged in the chrome nest of a Mustang
The man who shot Birmingham and it lived
The unmanufactured world, the unmade world of beings and things around us we don’t project or generate from our imaginations, are present even while they are unmade by urban and industrial encroachment.
But if I were asked for an overarching theme, I would argue that it is the Massacre of the Innocents, the subject of the original Coventry Carol. It was the second of three songs from the Pageant of the Shearsmen and Tailors, one of the Coventry Mystery Plays. It ends:
That wo is me, pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and may
For thi parting nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay
In Antony’s poems the innocents may be ‘unmourned chavs’ or unborn children, immigrants or the generation who grew up under Thatcher, the sailors on the Belgrano or children and butterflies in Gaza:
…the flagless breaths of all the hand me down butterflies that lay in the depot of Gaza’s pounded heart.
I dreamt of Gaza last night and it woke me
Antony’s Coventry Carol ends:
If I untied Coventry from claws of its Phoenix
Men would rise from old world again
Breaking windows of fat brown envelopes
Making their blitz from Daw Mill coal.
The Innocents here are the redundant men who lost their jobs in the eighties and didn’t deserve the fate that many suffered – to lose job, home, identity.
And families suffered too.
Childhood was a magic trick,
it vanished with the work,
sometime in the eighties.
The little things destroy us,
anchors to childhood are heavy,
sometimes they drown us.
The little things destroy us
Yet the Phoenix, the bird rising from the ashes in Coventry as elsewhere, is creativity, human ingenuity, the computer games designer or the poet. The death of the old man allowed the coming of the new.
Throughout the poems, the bird is ultimately the poet, ever present on the edge of things, asking questions and trying to sing, whatever the weather.
I cannot praise this collection highly enough. The music of its percussive language is a joy to read, especially aloud. Its crystals of imagery satisfy as much as they entice. It’s a collection of different forms – from ballad-like to prose poem, from short lyric to almost-sonnet. It is deeply felt and originally thoughtful, catching the spirit of the times in its far-flung net, and at the same time singing about something deeper and more timeless about humanity and change.
25 October 2015
John Davies was born in Birmingham and now lives in Brighton. From 2002 until 2014 he ran Pighog Press. He is well known as Shedman, the original poet in a shed (www.shedman.net)
His work was published most recently in Our Storeys: Art & Poetry in Healthcare edited with artist Sue Ridge.