I’m more angry now than I was thirty years ago. There’s a lot more to get angry about.
As a northern poet more closely aligned with the colour red than blue, you’ll forgive me if I was a little bit excited to meet the social surrealist rebel poet and songwriter, Attila the Stockbroker – aka John Baine – on Sunday at the Pump and Truncheon. He was in town to perform his poetry at the hugely popular punk festival, Rebellion. We had planned to meet on the Friday but John decided there was no point in us meeting up until he’d found a place to get a decent pint of beer. Quite so. My first question to him related to his title.
What is social surrealism?
It’s like the old pre-1989 Eastern European concept of Social Realism, ie depicting bold workers in big paintings with hammers and sickles in their hands and peasants in the fields striving but adding a few fish, the odd bicycle, maybe a dead cat. Basically, what I do is, I’m a Marxist, I’m an unashamed, proud Communist, and at the same time, I’m totally into surreal, weird humour and basically I want to entertain people and make them think at the same time. So that’s the whole point of that. If you were just political it could be very dull and dry and boring and if you’re just entertaining, you can be empty and devoid of content. What I try to do is combine the two. You know Mary Poppins? A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
I think there’s a misconception at the moment about the left, about people who protest. I sense a bit of fear from people who are swayed by the media, fearing people who are activists.
The essence of the mainstream media is to make people afraid. You see it every day on the front page of The Daily Mail, The Daily Express or The Sun. You’re either supposed to be afraid of immigrants, asylum seekers, scroungers, or various diseases like diabetes or obesity. Make people worry. If they’re worrying about something then they won’t protest. Bankers won’t get their just desserts. It’s divide and rule.
The greatest book in the history of the world is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. I’m just re-reading it for the third time and I can honestly tell you, and it’s a terrible indictment of the society we live in now, that it’s more relevant now than it was when I read it twenty years ago, and we’re supposed to be progressing. But everything my parents’ generation fought for is being destroyed. The welfare state is being destroyed. You just have to look around you in a place like this (Blackpool). It’s disgusting what’s happening in this country. Absolutely disgusting. And I go abroad and do loads of gigs elsewhere and it’s not like that in most other countries. We are the mugs, like in Mugsborough (the fictional town featured in Tressell’s novel) which is based on Hastings, near to where I’m from. Mugsborough – people who will go along with whatever they’re told by their ‘betters’. I remember my own grandmother saying ‘It’s not for the likes of us’.
And there is a sense that we have so little to hold on to that we have to kowtow. It’s a Victorian attitude isn’t it, that you should be grateful for what you’ve got?
Yes, it’s all the bollocks like the royal baby. I mean she had a baby, that’s brilliant. It’s wonderful for her and her husband. It’s a wonderful, fantastic thing – new human life. But why the rest of us are supposed to care about it, frankly I do not know.
You started protesting in the Thatcher era, through poetry and song…
I started before that. I started playing in punk bands in 1976. Thatcher came to power in 1979. I can still remember the day she won that election. ‘Where there is division, let us bring hope,’ Francis of Assisi, then she did the opposite for twelve years. You know what I think about all of that. My poem, A Hellish Encounter, is about the epic struggle in hell between Satan and Thatcher who wants to privatise it, close down the furnaces and turn it into a call centre. That sums it up.
What about the difference between then and now? What do you think is the difference between what she was doing, and your response at the time, and how you’re responding to what’s going on now?
What she did, she was very clever, she had the media on her side. But even Thatcher would not have dared to destroy the welfare state and target the poor and the disabled and the sick in the way that they’re doing now. What the traitors are doing now, what the scumbags are doing now, and New Labour are going along with it, is even worse than what Thatcher did. And the fact that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to go and do it… In Sussex, where I come from, a dead dog with a blue rosette would get elected and the Liberal Democrats were the opposition and they have been completely wiped out by this. We’ve got the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, who is fantastic, but it is contemptible what is happening. And the problem is we don’t have the same radical socialist opposition that they have in mainland Europe. When I say I’m a Communist in this country, it’s [shocking] but everywhere else in Europe, it’s accepted.
Where is the opposition in this country? When it comes to the election, what are we going to do?
I keep reading articles in the mainstream media asking ‘Where is the main opposition?’, ‘Where is the opposition in a cultural position?’, ‘Where are the protest singers?’, and ‘Where are the poets?’ Well, actually we are here, and we’ve been doing this for a very long time, but you don’t give us coverage because you serve the interests of the ruling class. You serve the interests of bosses and bankers. Their vested interest is in maintaining their position and they (the ruling class) don’t want people to hear about us and therefore we don’t get in the media. In my particular case, I get on the radio quite often but it’s talking about anything but radical politics. I’m very proud of what I’ve done. One of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done in my life was performing my very long poem (The Long Goodbye) about my mum’s battle with Alzheimer’s on Radio 4 on Mother’s Day on Woman’s Hour. I mean it was wonderful and I’ve done lots of stuff like that but they won’t let me on to say provocative things like Gorbachev is a traitor and that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy and that the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the worst things to happen in the twentieth century. Because you’re not supposed to say stuff like that.
It is an established fact that the majority of the people who are old enough to remember now say that they were happier before 1989 than they are now. That does not mean that what happened before 1989 was perfect. I did loads of gigs in the GDR before the wall came down. There were loads of things that were wrong, the pollution especially, and the Stasi and the rest of it, but everybody had a job, everybody had healthcare. All those things, the basic things that people want in life. Now we are given to believe by our media that it doesn’t matter if you’re out of a job and you’re starving as long as you’ve got freedom of speech. Well that is the conservative intelligentsia dominating the agenda because most ordinary people want those basic things and then everything else stems from that. You ain’t going to start worrying about whether you’ve got freedom of speech if you haven’t got anywhere to live, if you haven’t got a job and you’re dying because your health is really shit because there’s no proper health service. That’s why I talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union being a tragedy. It should have been reformed by the Communist Party on their own terms, not handed over to Yeltsin and his gangster oligarchs who steal the oil wealth of the Russian people and spend it on football clubs, destroying our game in the process! The reason the Left in this country and across the world is in such a state is ultimately because of the fall of the Soviet Union. The capitalist winners (and make no mistake, they were the winners) wrote history from then on, all we heard about was gulags and Stasi rather than the other side – decent social provision and social justice – and loads of people gave up and started apologising for having ever believed it was possible to have socialism. I never will!
At this point I made the mistake of suggesting that John lived in Surrey while referring to the Balcombe anti-fracking movement. This was an error he quickly corrected.
Surrey? That’s like confusing Brighton and Crystal Palace!
I decided to move swiftly on, before the conversation moved towards football, and mentioned his comments on the Write Out Loud website in which he stated he would be up for participating in a poetic anti-fracking movement. I asked him what the protesters should do, given that resistance via the ordinary means had been ignored thus far.
It’s more than that. What’s really funny, and I know where Balcombe is and what kind of place it is, it’s a place where people drive around in Chelsea tractors that do 15 miles to the gallon and are suddenly anti-fracking because it’s a mile away on their doorstep and they’re afraid property prices are going to go down and yet when they were asked, by a rather clever right wing journalist, if they would prefer wind turbines there instead they didn’t say anything and then they said no. An interesting point is that although I’m anti-fracking, I’m also anti people who are against it because they are tories and it’s right on their doorstep. I’m totally for wind turbines. We live on the coast, I live 200 yards from the sea, in Sussex and it’s an industrial port with a big sewage outfall. I’d love to see a big row of wind turbines out there. Most of us around my way, about 60/40, say yes to them. You can’t get away from it. We are going to have to find new sources of energy. Fracking is not the answer but the people who are anti-fracking have got to wise up and realise that they have got to support renewable energy sources instead of going ‘No, we just don’t like fracking because it’s next door’. There’s no advanced political thought going on around there.
If remember the protests against the live animal exports at Shoreham in 1999. Animal rights people from all over the country were protesting about animal rights. In 1984 they were shipping ‘scabbed’ coal through there and nobody apart from a few local activists were complaining about that. It’s the same with the live animal exports or the anti-fracking. It’s got to be linked into a much wider appreciation of what is happening. The energy industry is just interested in money by whatever means necessary and giving back handers to the scumbags in government. We’ve got to provide an alternative and we’ve got to be aware of what’s going on. When I saw people, for example, during the live animal protests, and I asked them where they were during the miner’s strike in 1984 and what do you think about what’s going on generally in the country, the destruction of everything my parents worked for? They say ‘Oh, we’re just here for the animals.’ It’s got to be focused.
It’s not focused is it? It’s disjointed. How do you gather the factions together?
For me, you gather them together by coherent political analysis and a movement which has political and cultural bite but that isn’t happening. I’m more angry now than I was thirty years ago. There’s a lot more to get angry about.
More insights from Attila the Stockbroker to follow in the second part of this interview, available now by clicking here.
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