The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
The devil has had many names throughout history, Lucifer, Beelzebub and Old Nick among them. But according to Keith Howden, these days he likes to call himself Roger.
His Jolly Roger (Smokestack Books, £7.95) is an epic series of 12-line stanzas inspired by Hans Holbein’s sixteenth-century woodcuts, The Dance of Death.
As in the Rolling Stones song Sympathy For The Devil, this Roger is a handsome devil, charming and powerful. Everyone is brought low by him — the great and the good, the rich and the poor.
He hides in speak-your-weight machines, Nato bombing missions and a bag of Semtex: “I am the bone to which all other bones/have bent. I am plastic. My grammar is I will. Words wear my terrorist explosives ... I scream outrage/in time’s unhearing amphitheatre. I will./Language within a world that lacks language moulds me the semtex architect of hell.”
Howden’s devil is a political survivor. He’s also a pornographer, merchant banker, democrat, humanist and the enemy of humanity.
Ribald, ironic and irreverent, he hands out justice and denounces greed and the abuses of power in an age where death is a statistic and everyone gets rogered: “Fight the good fight for any tune you choose:/Courage and Honour, boys, the bugles blow — /but stay away from me. I never lose.”
Dante In The Laundrette (Smokestack Books, £7.95) is also set in hell — the Third Circle, to be precise — where it is always raining.
“Never sleep with anyone who has more scars than you,” warns outsider artist and disability arts activist Sean Burn in a book about historical scars, scarred landscapes and mental chains.
In this inferno, Lear is a council estate bully and Caedmon has been gender-reassigned and rehoused in a Newcastle tower block.
Meanwhile the poet is sitting contemplating the endless washing-cycles of hell: “and i’m reading dante in the laundrette/… and gulls are so many carrier bags/spewed feral on wind and hurled through my/kingdom all towerblocks and tenements/churchless towers huddle in conspiracy/outsized car stereos for the taking tuned/permanently to uneasy listening by now/i’m reading our minds will go completely null/as badly worn smalls mediums larges spin/the polycotton mix no longer washing/just like his vowels at the jobless centre.”
Tea With The Taliban (Smokestack Books, £7.95) is a book about the real — and imagined — warring tribes to which we all belong.
Owen Gallagher sets off in search of utopia but finds himself instead in various dystopian landscapes, from the Gorbals in the 1950s to contemporary Palestine and the imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Along the journey, Gallagher meets Emma Goldman, Trotsky and Shelley and glimpses a distant worker’s republic where parliamentary debates are conducted in verse and Mayakovsky is a Butlin’s redcoat: “I imagine a table laid for two on a beach, and you/being waited on by Plato and Thomas More, insisting they desist from serving the first course./They dim the sun, withdraw to the dunes,/while you sip a Robert Owen cocktail and text,/‘Hurry, before the tide turns.’”
Tea With The Taliban is a study in verse of our need to belong to something bigger than ourselves, the shared identities of “anthems, arms and flags,” the loyalties of family and friendship, religion and class, politics and nation state: “Mother’s brother, Hugh, had two pictures, side by side:/one was the Pope, the other Saint Marx as Hugh called him./Both were leaders of millions, he said. One was to assist us/into Heaven, the other to enable us to take what we were due/on Earth.”