Stupidity is not the problem

posted in: Poems | 0

This is the text of the piece I’m touring around at the moment. There’s a longer version, but this is the shorter version which is about all an audience can possibly stand.


1 History lesson

In the past, everything was worse.

Poor and hungry,
Scared and dirty,
Sick and ugly,
Thick and smelly.

It’s cold comfort greatness
Was recognising its wretchedness
And dreaming of better.

In short, brutish lives
Walking shitty streets
To bury another child,
No wonder sickly dreams
Of eating through miles
Of rice pudding seemed
Like heaven on hard floors.

Its name was Cockaigne,
Where you danced and you drank,
never argued, just ate,
Stopped occasionally to give thanks,
Rivers ran with wine,
Food fell from the skies
And all were equal in plenty and leisure.

Now we, the fortunate, pigged out on paradise,
Sit, heads down, jealously flicking through snaps
Of other people’s imagined lives
And dreamless surfeit makes us angry.

2 The poor can’t handle money, can they?

Before dawn in Kenya, Bernard’s on his way
To a quarry to earn 2 dollars a day
When he gets a shocking text:

An American Charity had just donated
The equivalent of a year’s wages,
No questions asked, just straight to his bank.

We’re conditioned to say,
In our privileged way,
That poor people can’t handle money.

We’re brought up to think
They’ll blow it on drink
Or fags or just gamble it away.

Several months later,
A journalist visited
And found a village flush with cash.

Homes were mended, businesses started,
Bernard’s a tenner a day taxi-driver
On his brand new Indian motorbike.

We’re conditioned to say,
In our privileged way,
That poor people can’t handle money.

We’re brought up to think
They’ll blow it on drink
Or fags or just gamble it away.

The poor are the experts in what the poor are needing,
The data’s harder than a banker’s greeting,
And I know what you’re probably thinking.

We’re conditioned to say,
In our privileged way,
That poor people can’t handle money.

We’re brought up to think
They’ll blow it on drink
Or fags or just gamble it away.

But they don’t.

3 Mincome, Canada

Stepping into the attic for the first time,
Evelyn the researcher couldn’t believe her eyes:

Data, data, boring data:

Gathering dust, 2000 boxes.
Receipts, accounts and information.
Abandoned when the funding went.
Never looked at by government.

Data, data, boring data

Common Sense says it’s a waste of spending.
Common Sense felt it not worth asking.
Common Sense never bothered counting.
The answers fit to bursting.

And no-one looked
Till Evelyn opened
The boxes 50 years on.

Would the boxes tell us;
If people given free money worked less?
If people given free money ate more or less doughnuts?
If people given free money did better or worse at school?
If people given free money had better health?
If people given free money got better jobs?

Common Sense says; people get lazy.
Common Sense says; people lack incentive.
Common Sense says; the world looks flat.
Common Sense says; the sun orbits the earth.

Data, data, boring data

Guess what the data said;

In Dauphin, Canada?
North Carolina?
Seattle and Denver?

Guess what the data said.

4 Nixon v Speenhamland v Orwell

Nixon wanted to win a war.
Nixon knew Vietnam was lost.
Nixon knew that no-one deserved
The lowness of poverty, the complex nothing
That pounds you down in bed, without enough
Cash. You’d imagine a simple existence,
But real life repeats an inconvenient
Surprise: It’s squalid, it’s slow, it’s dull,
It’s complicated, annihilating
The future and you’re left in scuffed-up shoes
In the here and now and the loudest shouts
Are oily voices who exploit your fall
Below a line that lets you live
Instead of existing and stumbling and they seize
The right to preach and pronounce on your poverty.
Their bible? The belief that the best are best
Through talent or graft and fortune’s raffle
Doesn’t exist. It couldn’t be luck,
Could it? Privilege invents
Its creation myth then spits out
Sneering theories of dysfunction and inferiority
On all not not born in fortunate beds.

Nixon knew Vietnam was lost
And Nixon wanted to win a war
On poverty, make history with liberal policies
Disguised in right-wing strides to satisfy
Hippies and hawks, Haves and Have-Nots;
To quiet the riots, extinguish the fires
In Watts and Detroit, a war worth waging.
His pen was poised, all was possible
Till poison voices handed him a spoiler:
A dodgy dossier, a six page document
About an English village with basic income,
Quoting a chapter of a classic tract
Concluding the poor “lost their human shape,”
When given an income to fill the space
In starving stomachs. So, instead of No-Strings,
Welfare became Workfare, the moment passed
And the riots persisted like the simple myth
Of the lazy poor, polluting politics
With “common sense” that never read
The studies the hawks misunderstood;
That even Friedman could see the sense in.

The real deal with Speenhamland
Was increased efficiency and labour mobility,
But, corrupted by clergy and Royal Commissions,
The rich recycled their erroneous refrain
That hunger and hardship make the poor help themselves;
That saving them makes them lazy and wicked.

Nixon lost in Vietnam
Nixon lost another war
Nixon lost a golden chance.

We’re conditioned to say,
In our privileged way,
That poor people can’t handle money.

We’re brought up to think
They’ll blow it on drink
Or fags or just gamble it away.

Nixon ignored studies that said different
Nixon ignored the facts in front of his eyes
Nixon lost his golden chance.
Nixon lost.

5 I swapped the good life for a slightly improved phone

“My grandmother didn’t have the vote, my mother didn’t have the Pill and I don’t have any time.”
-Mirjam Schottelndreier

O, Henry Ford, what will we do with our leisure?
They called you crazy but followed your mad footsteps when you said, because you’d measured that less hours was better, because you’d experimented with longer but found after a month it tailed off; because tired workers are less productive, because tired workers have more accidents, because tired workers don’t screw the nut.

O Henry Ford, what will we do with our leisure?
Your production-line mastermind knew workers could handle the good life in time; an employee drudging from dawn to dusk will never have time to enjoy one of your cars. The shining, white family in the propaganda poster weren’t driving to work with their smiles and their hats and their dog.

O, Henry Ford, what will we do with our leisure?
Will we be Jetsons, cartoon predictions of a 2 hour week? Will psychiatrists toil on every corner, probing our boredom with chemical hammers? Will he who sleeps longest earn the most? Will we worship and pray on a succession of Holy Days? Where will we park our flying cars?

O, Henry Ford, what will we do with our leisure?
Futurists never saw three-job mums coming; never saw shredded skins drink Relentless in the precinct; never saw packs of the unwanted hunt for change; never saw the latest obsolete smartphone stretch our working week; never saw us swap the good life for money and stuff; never saw us work ourselves to death, hurrying past cars on drives the colour of the sky to catch a ferry across the Lethe to pay off debts to dream of more stuff.

6 This poem about bankers refuses to rhyme till the end.

If binmen suddenly went on strike,
Black bagged mountains of their true value
Would shout their case on street corners,

Striking pay deals fit
to bursting the Waitrose carriers
Where nappies were learning to crawl.

If the top talent of BBC, Sky and ITV
Took a stand and stopped presenting things,
Adverts wouldn’t starve for voiceovers,

Even if they picketed on clean streets,
Sipping outrage served in Starbucks cups,
Forcing talent shows straight to the public vote.

If controversialists on Twitter downed phones,
Stopped baiting minorities, refugees and anyone
With a soul until they were paid the living wage,

We’d have to get our bigotry at bus-stops
From old ladies in fleeces covered in badges,
Who preferred the old money.

If CEO’s all took off to find some meaning
And Flash-Traders all base-jumped off high buildings
Of cheap wealth and Short-Sellers all stopped betting

On disaster till kingdom come, no-one
Would even know they’d gone, no-one
Would know extra suffering or want

for a hospital bed as a result. So,

If the measure of our value is what happens when we stop…
Then what?


What do we want our children to be?

Will we measure them with stuff and money?

7 A worker views an automated future

Willing and idle as Shire horses
Braced for imminent driverless buses
That still come in threes, the knowledge tree’s
Been stripped by progress of low-hanging fruit,
Leaving axes, hammers and Fuck-You votes.

The apps and machines efficiently look after
Decreasing numbers of lucky winners,
Inequality swells like a trapped hand
In a taxi door. Once, a Henry Ford
Taunted a shop-steward on a guided tour

Of automated assembly’s future:
Robots, one man and a dog. The being
Feeds the dog that stops the man touching
The hardware but where will the mass get cash
To pay for the driverless cab?

8 Beyond the gates of the sad land of plenty
You might not like this, but…,

We’re leaving trillion dollar bills on the street,
While we suck bile from Chinese phones.
Eating peanut spread from four continents.
Open to everything from anywhere except people.

Meanwhile, in the hinterlands, there are
mouths to feed,
Homes to build,
Kids to teach
Which means

You might not like this.
You might not like this.
You might not like this at all.

We pray for post free Amazon dreams
We pray for distant baby girls with a one fifth shot at death
to wind past like ads on demand TV.

We pray for some barrier to keep it far-flung
We pray for miracle walls
That let phones in but not children.

You might not like this,
You might not like this.
You might not like this.

From the back of a cab we hailed with an app
We blame her parents for wanting better,
Turn them back from this sad land of Plenty,
Where toddlers survive. But if she came in,
No home-grown child would die,
Never a life for a life.
We let her in
And everybody wins.

So you might not like this.
You might not like this.
You might not like this at all.

Potential cries at borders
While we trade anger for data,
Baying for walls that keep money out;

Prosperity flows both ways like tides;
If it works for smartphones
Why’s it bad for people?

Meanwhile, in the hinterlands, there are
Mouths to feed,
Kids to teach,
Homes to save for
Parents to care for,
Plastics to clear,
Oceans to heal.

Why doesn’t this feel like a land of plenty to you?

you might not like this.
you might not like this.
you might not like this

Dreams exist in the distance,
unseen points where we set sail
On promise-boats painted with hopes
To New Worlds built on foundations
of migration and imagination,
Who wouldn’t want to be a destination?

So You might not like this, but…
Where are your dreams?
Do they look like old films?
Do they smell of burnt sausage
Stuck to the pan
in a container caff
On a roundabout
Where the owner wipes his nose
On his apron and growls

The problem is the answer.
The enemy is your ally
Which might be why

9 How change happens

(For Harry Leslie Smith)

What is it we want really?
For what end and how?
If it is something feasible, obtainable,
Let us dream it now. (Louis MacNeice. 1938)

Let us sleep.
Let us pray.
Let us dream

Of a tide that raises all boats,
from two-up-two-down
outside toilet, back to back

Via council house with lawns front and back
Where children learn to bowl and bat.

Let us remember in sleep the parents
Who just wanted for us to play

And grandparents who made do, local
And foreign, smoking their way to baffled graves.

And you who agree with me.
And you who disagree with me.

And the voices buzzing through cheap speakers,
Calling us off the estate without us leaving.

And the Bog Standard Comp where dreams
Were currency, no matter how dumb.

Where the Brylcreemed teacher
took old TV’s and built a sound mixer

And showed us how before we fell away,
Dreaming at a shoe box of valves.

Let us sleep.
Let us pray.
Let us dream

Of something new made of old ideas
Recycled into foolproof admissions of our fears

Of parents with dementia, frightened
Back into the house, short-circuiting heads

Producing mad language I’ll not learn
Till it’s far too late. Till then,

Let us dream, not of money and stuff for ourselves,
But of riches for the carers we might need,

And we will not audit the money going in
Or going out any more than we audit

The sea. Nor will we plunge in, angry puppets,
To drown our hell-bent opinions in self-pity,

Or blame locals or foreigners for the downside
To long life any more than anyone

In sound body and mind would wish for early death
And never see their grandkids waste time

On the latest daft craze; time shifting
sand banks under glass-bottomed memories

To cling to as seas rise,
To value as other currencies capsize.

Let us dream, awake,
Let us dream, awake,

Of what we might want really;
For what end and how?

For grandkids the size of pinheads,
Small as the faith needed to cling

To lifeboats bobbing in the swell
Of war-weather and split skies.

Of Harry Smith’s reminder
That Good Old Days are for those who give up

on the present and we can only fail
if we fail to dream and allow a future like Harry’s past.

So then,

Let us wake.
Let us pray.
Let us dream.

grab history by the collar, drag it back
To red-faced reality and ask ourselves:

What is it we want really?
For what end and how?
If it is something feasible, obtainable,
Let us dream it now.

Follow Jimmy Andrex:

Poet, performer, propelling pencils.

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