By David Wynne-Jones
I’m not clapping.
What is there to applaud?
The suggestion that we should “take it on the chin?”
Years of underfunding the NHS?
Chronic shortages of PPE?
The disproportionate deaths of BAME people?
Jokes about “Operation Last Gasp?”
And are there even any nurses in earshot?
I canvassed this street not six months ago
and others, in darkness when people were home,
knocking on doors in windblown hail and sleet,
feet soaking, leaflets turning to papier mâché in my hands,
and the only people to offer shelter were
Jehovah’s Witnesses – “On your side
but we’re not allowed to vote. We have to leave
it up to God to work his purpose out.”
I doubt they were surprised by this pandemic.
The youngsters then who worked the streets with me –
streets where homeless people sleep
in shop doorways, the rich in gated communities –
were saddled with student debt, on zero-hour contracts,
and going to leave the country if
the election went the way that it did.
But we won this marginal seat, lost the election,
and so I go on, trying to make a difference,
but not clapping.
There are others out there clapping:
the Thatcherite who thought austerity
good to shrink the state; the Brexiteer
who told me, “There are far too many people
in this country that simply don’t belong here.”
Are they clapping so that they can claim,
“We supported the NHS!”? or only
to legitimise the deaths of health workers,
styling them heroes in a fake war scenario?
I’m vulnerable, marginalised
by such empty gestures that provide
another excuse for more tokenism;
as cities burn across the USA,
as people take to the streets, angry at last
when nothing’s being done about injustice,
my chest tightens, virus or not, I feel,
“I can’t breathe,” hearing the sound of clapping.
I miss shaking hands,
hugs, high fives,
the elbow bump is no substitute;
just as Skype or Zoom are no
substitute for meeting face to face.
I hear it now in radio comedy where
comedians awkwardly laugh at their own jokes
in an effort to supply the missing audience.
Giving a zoom lecture, I can’t tell
if the tiny screen people are laughing
at my jokes, are touched by my stories.
Conference calls are full of miscues,
missed takes, the body language missing.
Media presenters try to manage guests
on poor connections, lines that fade out, skip words,
as grammar breaks down, people are silenced and
virtual reality fails us.
We click from screen to screen in hopes of better
losing touch, losing our grip, close to the edge
of outburst, keeping our cool through
a kind of emotional hypothermia.
And so, I’m not surprised it’s not enough,
to post on-line, Instagram or tweet
when touched by an enormous grief and anger.
There is a need to gravitate together,
a need for closeness like family;
a veteran white Civil Rights campaigner
shares his thoughts with a young black blogger, masked,
and then a socially distanced single mother,
after the speeches, in solidarity;
“Racism is the virus; we the vaccine!”
Elsewhere others struggle to rewarm
at raging fires another Black death has lit.
At the daily briefing, some minister or other
steps up to the dais, flanked or not
by career scientists, all public figures,
or figureheads, their status reinforced
by a background of wood panelling,
union jacks, campaign slogans to the fore,
spinning statistics on wide-screen slides.
Performances are stage-managed, questions
pre-selected, cut off if too searching;
they hold the whip hand,
tell us what to do, what to think.
We look up to them, like statues, placed
on pedestals amidst our civic life.
Respect, embedded in the very language,
conditions our measure of civility,
exercising power, not only fiscal,
that colonises the public space.
Are these graven images, cast bronzes
a form of idolatry, celebrating values,
beliefs, belonging to another era?
Dissent or protest, sinks under their weight
embodying establishment inertia,
year after year, and buttressed by
the likes of Saville whose charity work
hid his paedophilia in plain sight,
or Colston, attempting to expiate, perhaps,
the sins of slavery, endowing schools, churches,
with not a single word of repentance.
Until another, unarmed, black man
is killed by a cop, provoking outrage,
anger, and then, in the comfort of the crowd,
people discover that they too have lost
too much, too often, for too long,
when that knowledge finally finds focus,
on a statue, long-resented, now pulled down,
rolled to the waterfront, dumped in the dock.
Elsewhere, the talking heads condemn the action,
know only too well they have a lot to lose,
their utterance haunted by an empty plinth.
They have vandalised a gravestone in my parish;
perhaps the only black grave in the churchyard.
Certainly, the only one that could be identified as such
amongst the fading names on headstones,
polished marble of family tombs, war graves,
but you’d have to seek it out.
Chubby black cherubs give the game away
and may be in bad taste like the inscription,
a kind of spiritual colonialism, celebrating salvation,
but let’s not forget, all faiths are evangelical,
fishers of men, women, and in this case
a pagan child imported to die
at just eighteen, 300 years ago.
His name, Scipio Africanus, teases with uncertainties.
Was it his master’s intention he should be freed
for good service, the practice of the Roman,
or only to celebrate another triumph
over the African power that was Carthage?
We cannot know; the master did not long
outlive the man. What is certain is
black Christians too have been evangelists,
empowering Gospel, Soul music, speaking in tongues,
or George Floyd on a sport discipleship
to save youth from the gun.
This is a broad church; hard by its north wall
the Victorian grave of an Egyptologist,
her lesbian lover and daughter, is
marked by no cross; an obelisk and ankh,
bear witness to some ecumenical tolerance
of pagan Egypt, despite Israel’s enslavement,
although even Amelia Edwards didn’t
worship Horus, as far as we know.
This city has a black mayor, evangelical
in faith and politics, “the Reverend Rees,”
who receives death threats from the self-same gang
that vandalises historic gravestones;
the dispossessed, disenfranchised, disempowered,
becoming more unstable under lockdown,
living as people are not meant to live,
in fear; the very people that Rees fights for,
now energised by a different agenda.
Let slip the rabid dogs and no golden calf
enthroned in the heart of government
can whistle them in to seek a Promised Land
where black lives matter.
Ex-teacher, now full-time mountaineer and writer, Dave Wynne-Jones has published “Kidstuff, poems to share with children,” and “4000m. Climbing the Highest Mountains of the Alps.”
I couldn’t help writing the poem because the experiences of Covid in Bristol impressed upon me the interaction of the personal with the public dimensions of our lives in an inescapably political context. The poem developed stage by stage as the effects of lockdown began to feed into the Black Lives Matter demonstrations with the two key events in Bristol being the toppling of the Colston statue and the vandalism at the grave of Scipio Africanus. I didn’t get any pictures of the vandalised grave (the gravestones have been removed in hopes of restoration) but I believe there are some photos on the files of local news media if you wanted visual material for the project. Recordings of the last 2 sections of the poem have been played on Radio Bristol.