Thursday 10 November 2011

Alien England

English Journey: Re-Imagined, Barbican, London, Saturday 22 October

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
John Clare, ‘I Am’

The first half of the Barbican’s fascinating multimedia adventure English Journey: Re-Imagined concluded with these lines, read movingly by the writer Alan Moore. Clare’s desire for tranquility, though, was perhaps denied him by the fearsome scenes which preceded this reading: a slow film of a witch led to the gallows, accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy and a huge sheet of metal pounded relentlessly with fists and a hammer by FM Einheit (formerly of Einstürzende Neubauten), and a solitary man in blackface dancing a jig.

This was, without doubt, one of the strangest events I have attended lately, but it was no less interesting for this. Structured loosely as a journey around three English regions – Suffolk, Newcastle and London – this work was led/curated by the writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, with poetry and prose readings from Moore and Tom Pickard, and a band directed by Susan Stenger but dominated somewhat by the explosive violence of Einheit and his metal sheet. Additional video material was provided by Graham Dolphin. Though the three sections of this piece varied hugely in terms of style and content, perhaps the one common theme was an insistence on the sinister – the alien, even – as a constituent part of England. Especially, in fact, rural England, with its witches and straw bears and mad poets.

The opening journey – that through Suffolk – was perhaps the most successful, being anchored fairly solidly around the story of John Clare’s descent into madness and his wanderings around the English countryside. Vivid scattergun readings by Sinclair and Moore, whose striking first-person narrative was a moving insight into the tragedy of the story, compellingly transported the audience to Clare’s countryside. What the ensuing witch-hanging-blackface-jig-metal-pounding lacked in consistency or subtlety, it made up for in genuine lunacy. This section’s full-on commitment to the multimedia aspect was hugely confusing at times, but never less than gripping.

The second journey was a less narrative one, primarily consisting of a poetry reading from Northumbrian poet Tom Pickard and another sinister film with live music. The third, ostensibly about London, mainly comprised a meditation on early Romanticism by Moore, his powerful words emphasised and heightened by a mostly electronic musical backdrop. A concluding section was one of the few moments to feel jarring rather than daring in terms of its juxtaposition: Sinclair light-heartedly and often comedically discussed minutes from a Hackney Town Council meeting, in between apocalyptic interjections from Einheit and his hammer. It was hard to ascertain the connection between these elements and there was a sense in which the work overall lost focus at this point.

That said, English Journey: Re-Imagined was a laudably ambitious project containing an inspiringly diverse range of ideas and media. Englishness is clearly a multi-faceted thing, and at times a dark one. Sinclair, Moore and (especially) Einheit made this point with zeal and flare. I would like to hear Einheit on fluffy bunny rabbits next.


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