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Book Review Potent political messages to a radical man of letters

Letters to Randall Swingler
by Andy Croft
(Shoestring Press, £10)

THE OTTAVA rima is a rhyming stanza used in the past by poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Lord Byron and WB Yeats and, fittingly, it's been chosen by prolific poet, editor and publisher Andy Croft for his latest poetry collection Letters to Randall Swingler.

A brilliant exercise in political discourse, wit and irony, it's a book written out of Croft’s profound desire to establish a poetic dialogue with Swingler (1900-1967), the largely forgotten novelist, poet, playwright, librettist and editor of radical literary magazines such as Left Review, Poetry and People, Our Time, Arena and Circus.

Through four illuminating “letters,” Croft assumes the role of razor-sharp diarist who keeps Swingler up to date with the latest developments in contemporary poetry, recent politics and the world in general in the last 50 years.

They're spiced with observations about his own experiences of everyday life in Britain today and, as he writes in the first letter, “The world has changed a bit since you last died,/As you’ll find out, we’re in a proper state;/So you will have to trust me as your guide.”

Croft is hugely engaging as he expertly guides Swingler, and us, through biographical tropes, literary failings and, in recognition of Swingler's serving with the 56th Divisional Signals in North Africa and Italy, the second world war.

The author is in a unique position as an intimate Swingler specialist and admirer. He's edited his selected poems and produced biographical works on the writer, as a result of which he discovered that MI5 spied on him from 1938 to 1955.

Not only did they follow him around London day and night, taking extensive notes when he addressed public meetings, they also exerted pressure to to have him sacked from his job at the BBC.

“Although your pre-War files were so hush-hush/That somebody ensured they were ‘destroyed,’/ The reason they developed such a crush/On you is that your betters were annoyed/ Because you wrote that song with Alan Bush/About the hunger of the unemployed.”

The letters also deal with such subjects as the rise of new Labour under Tony Blair, the “war on terror,” the failings of the Bush administration, Brexit and the dangers of an ever-expanding far-right ideology in Europe and the US.

Letters to Randall Swingler is a must-read for those interested not only in knowing more about the fascinating life and work of the writer. It's also a masterfully interwoven insight into the complexities of modern life and politics of the last five decades.

One can only hope that Croft keeps writing to Swingler and, in the process, helps enlighten us all.

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