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Interview ‘It’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in’

FRAN LOCK interviews Alan Morrison about his Anxious Corporals, a polemical and poetic history of post-war working-class aspirational culture of self-improvement

FL: Anxious Corporals (AC) is a term first coined by Arthur Koestler to describe working-class servicemen with a need to – as you write – “satisfy some/ Vitamin deficiency of the mind,” not for the purposes of self-advancement, but to help make sense of an increasingly fragile and threatening world. This sense of anxiety permeates AC at the level of language. Was this a conscious creative decision?

AM: Anxiety is underneath everything I do, particularly creatively, it’s the conductor of my thoughts and words and ideas; also an obsessiveness, which very much comes through in the obsessional pull of this poem, of the phrasings punctuated only with commas, giving a breathless almost panicky quality.

Creativity and self-expression are essentially anxious acts. Arguably life itself is a state of anxiety.

The poem functions, in part, as a lament for that lost working-class autodidactism. Why, at such an anxious point in our history, do we not see this corresponding thirst for knowledge today?

The irony today is that with ever greater resources for communication and information the novelties in those areas have diminished rather than expanded. It’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in.

No doubt there are certain types of people who do still thirst for knowledge, but a lot of the time the knowledge sought might not be the most enlightening.

Ultimately what vast archives of easily accessed knowledge seem to have achieved is an increasing craving for instant gratification, an impatience, a poor concentration, an attitude that seems to expect everything to be immediately explainable at the touch of a button. But most things aren’t instantly explainable, many things require very active application, long studied reading and processing.

FL: One really significant aspect of this book is its understanding that the demise of critical thinking is something that is also done to people, deliberately, politically, over time. I was particularly struck by your critique of relativist or postmodern discourse. How has this kind of neoliberal postmodernism affected the way in which  the working class understands and accesses knowledge?

AM: Suffice it to say that I agree that much of this cultural deprivation is “done to” people and of course we see this mass effort of ignorance-promoting misinformation deployed daily through the right-wing red top press, which also completely corrupts our democratic process through its mass hypnotism of vast sections of the population towards voting Tory or the nearest equivalent.

Tabloid editors would argue it’s patronising to say so, but what could be more patronising than the presumption that the working classes want to read the anti-intellectual, culturally philistine and politically reactionary tripe that they spoon-feed them?

When I wrote AC I was very angry. Back in the 1980s many had fallen for the false promises of Thatcherism, which resulted in the spiritual crippling of our culture and society and lasting scars that have still yet to heal. So when so many seemed to fall for the xenophobic populism of Farage, Johnson and Vote Leave, I just felt so frustrated, betrayed and, well, just angry, angry at what I saw as seeming mass ignorance. The fall of the “red wall” in 2019 felt like the final straw.

The study in working-class Toryism, Angels of Marble, which I excerpt extensively in AC, provides us with many depressing and uncomfortable answers to the conundrum of blue-collar Conservatism, and it really is vital information which still applies today and is something so fundamental to British society that it has to be understood and combated by the left into the future if we’re ever to break the right-wing hegemony of our political system.

FL: To what extent do you think that capitalism – and Thatcherism in particular – has bred a mistrust of knowledgable people, and succeeded in devaluing education if it is not connected to some kind of quantifiable economic “success?”

AM: Oh absolutely, the primary preoccupation of capitalism and all capitalist governments is economic productivity and this is why there is such lack of interest in and low tolerance of Tory ministers towards the arts and humanities in academia.

Moreover, the Tories tend to also see the arts and humanities as an intellectual threat to capitalist dogma and hegemony, particularly subjects such as sociology and cultural studies. To use the old adage, capitalism “knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

FL: You also talk about the general distortion of working-class values by capitalism and through culture. What are some of its most recent manifestations? Is it a trend that you also see reflected in contemporary poetry?

AM: Neoliberalism is the ultimate bourgeoisification of culture in terms of promoting mediocrity and banality (eg celebrity culture). Imagination is distrusted, everything is trivialised to the lowest common denominator, individualism encouraged but individuality mystified and even stigmatised.

I think this anti-intellectualism and, indeed, anti-idealism, has permeated contemporary poetry for some decades now in the postmodernist mainstream, there’s long been a culture of stylistic policing which increasingly homogenises the medium, and so one has to look elsewhere, to the fringes, the small presses, to find the most interesting and authentic poetry being published.

But there has been a slow continuing politicisation of poetry over the past few years, something like a depth charge, which is has infiltrated the mainstream to some extent. Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the poetry scene, the trend is still, stubbornly and increasingly towards social irrelevance, individualism, poetic solipsism, and attitudinal narcissism – selfie-poetry.

FL: Do you see poetry as a potential site of resistance to this distortion of working-class values by capitalism?

AM: In a sense, being arguably the least economically productive or enriching artistic medium, it [poetry] has nothing to lose in being as political, as oppositional as it can be (and yet so much of it is so conservative!)

Poetry can be weaponised, more spiritually than politically I think, in the sense that it is something materially transcendent, since it has such little material incentive, and this gives it an unpredictable power all its own.

Most of this power is in metaphor – metaphor is both weapon and camouflage.

FL: There is deep sadness towards the end of the book for a loss of the Pelican imprint, and for the aims and aspirations of an intellectually curious working-class, but I also have a sense of hope. Pelican – like the working classes – endures by other means. Where would you locate this sense of hope?

AM: Where there’s humanity, compassion, and spirit, there’s always hope, in the spirit of poetry, of creativity, of giving, of unconditional love – in this spirit of compassionate opposition, whether it manifests politically in socialism or communism, in liberation theology at the fusion point of Marxism and Christianity.

Capitalism, materialism, consumerism all stand in the way of this, and so they must be swept aside, in time they will have to be, simply, if humanity is to survive into any future worth having, whether through human means or those outside of our control.

Anxious Corporals is available from smokestack-books.co.uk £7.99.

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