When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat
It will bring out the best in you.
It is as simple as music or drunken speech.
There will be flashes of obsolete light.
You will notice the weather only when it starts to die.
Sean Bonney, Happiness, Poems After Rimbaud (London: Unkant Publishing), 2011, p. 37
I read these lines to an audience that had gathered at the Flapper in Birmingham to see the bands 40 Watt Sun, Rumour Cubes and Sun Wolf. I had been invited on tour with Rumour Cubes as my poetry features on some of their songs: 1871, Letters to Palestine (rewritten on the tour) Research and Destroy (poetry written just before the tour) and The Gove Curve.
It was our first gig and I was due on stage for the second song of the set. As I came onto the stage ready to introduce and perform The Gove Curve, Adam Stark (guitarist) said he needed more time to restring his guitar. Shortly after restringing he dropped his guitar, broke another string and needed more time. During all this there was silence.
I was closest to the mic so I decided to fill that silence with Bonney’s poem. As I finished the first line I heard a sharp collective gasp. I continued to read. At its end there was no applause, no sound. Terry Murphy (viola) asked me nervously if I had memorised another verse. I hadn’t. After another 30 seconds Annie Rew Shaw (guest pianist for Rumour Cubes and solo artist) started playing a melody and we performed a version of Letters To Palestine.
I was shaken by the whole experience. I remember asking Joe (bassist) for a hug. Having heard Sean read this poem many times, having performed the poem myself when introducing the post-punk band Left Leg, and after being really fired up for the whole performance I just wasn’t ready for their silence. At the end of other songs I performed with Rumour Cubes that night I felt that applause was muted, and that there was a palpable sense of hate, or at least disapproval, emanating from the crowd. These feelings were compounded by my concerns that I had ruined Rumour Cubes’ first gig of the tour. I’m writing about this now because I think this performance taught me a few things about Bonney’s poem.
Five lessons from Birmingham:
- No Tories in the street were harmed in the making of the poem. Any Tories in the audience were also left unharmed. Whatever judgement there is to be made about the rhetorics of violence used in the poem, the person performing it to a hostile crowd is the one left in a vulnerable position.
- The poem is as much about measurement as violence. The degree of hostility expressed by the audience towards the poem and its speaker is the distance between the audience and the possibility of their revolution.
- In the performance ‘the weather’ is the room and the people in it. As the final word of the poem dies away, you are left in a room with the people you’ve spoken to. You know something about them that you didn’t before. The violence in the poem is in them. Note the ambiguity of the word ‘it’ in the last line. It’s uncertain whether ‘it’ refers to the ‘weather’, the ‘light’ or the ‘Tory’.
- When I performed the poem I accidentally exchanged the first word of the poem ‘when’ for the word ‘if’, thereby softening the poem by making its violent imperatives conditional on crossing paths with a Tory. Beginning with the word ‘when’, the poem is saying its violence is inevitable: its just a matter of time. What possible discerning feature would allow you to identify the Tory on the street so that you can cut their throat anyway? Reading Bonney’s poem then judging their reaction might be a good place to start.
- The word ‘throat’ is important to the meaning of the poem. Cutting the throat is an attack on language as much as it is an attack on the body. By identifying the throat as the site to be attacked the interrelationship between the body, its politics and its language is also identified. When the audience gasped and fell into silence at the first line of the poem they physically acknowledged this to be true.
The poem singles out ‘a Tory’ for throat cutting, but this isolated violence has to been seen in the context of the violence committed by the state. People taking their own life after being informed of cuts to their benefits (BBC), while the Government issues ‘more than 3,000 export licences for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which are on its own official list for human rights abuses’ (The Independent), are just two examples. How can this be tolerated when a poem which simply invokes violence cannot? I’ve always taken the poem to be highly moral even in its deviation from conventional definitions of morality.