My mobile rang. I didn’t recognise the number, but answered. A friendly professional voice asked if I was Niall McDevitt. Telesales? Normally I would have hung up immediately, but there was something in the tone that made me keep listening.
“It is,” I ventured.
The man at the other end then really surprised me. Instead of breaking into a mercantile spiel all about some wonderful product or policy, utterly irrelevant to me, he simply asked: “I liked your book Porterloo. I was wondering if I could commission you to write a poem?”
What followed was a roller-coaster learning curve. It was Mark Perryman, the man behind the famous Camus T-shirts — Philosophy Football. I’d heard of his company, but not of the extracurricular activities he and his colleagues get up to when they’re not designing the thinking person’s torso-wear.
Had I heard of Phil Piratin? Er, no. Had I heard of the Battle of Cable Street? Er, yes. Well, Piratin was one of the main organisers behind the Battle, an unsung hero of the English left, best known for being an elected Communist Party MP.
It was the first commissioned poem I’d been asked to do. Books about Piratin were despatched in the post. A major East End cultural event was in the offing, called Days of Hope. An antidote to WWII jingoism it was conceived to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of nazism — with the help of the Red Army — and the election of Communist MPs.
The line-up was incredible. Owen Jones, Paul Mason, Cat Boyd and Harry Leslie Smith providing the chit-chat; Josie Long the laughs; Maddy Carty and Captain Ska the music; Michael Rosen the poetry, and me. Perryman won my eternal gratitude for inviting me to join his left-wing circus.
One of Days of Hope concepts was its May 9 date, just after the general election. It was fervently hoped the Tories would be guillotined by the voters and that a rainbow coalition of reds and greens, Scots and Welsh would take the wheel of the good ship Albion. But those hopes died.
The event, instead, became a much-needed healing session and regrouping. There was a spirit of wise defiance in the Rich Mix venue, itself threatened by closure. Days of Hope became about not losing hope.
It’s good to reflect that since that message went out, Rich Mix has been saved from demolition and there has been an unforeseen sea-change in the British left, where the marginalised stalwarts of authentic socialism — Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell — are now in charge of the Labour Party.
My poem skipped nine years back in time from 1945 to focus on Piratin’s part in the events of October 4 1936 — one of the most hopeful days in modern history. You can read the poem here.
It is a night-walk through the territory, a recapturing of atmosphere.
Niall McDevitt is the author of two collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2013). He is an urban explorer who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud/Yeats. He blogs at poetopography.wordpress.com