A Slow Death by State

How advanced a society is can be judged by how well it looks after its young, its old, and those unable to look after themselves. It is this latter category that fills my thoughts.

I live on the first floor of a council block. I’ve spent half my adult life as a council tenant in buildings whose design is motivated more by saving costs than by providing adequate living space. With walls as thin as tracing paper you get to know your neighbours business and they yours, whether you want to or not. Lives collide. If you’re lucky friendships are made, if not intolerable stress can result.
My neighbour directly above me moved in four years ago. A white man in his early forties, he was a recovering alcoholic. A rock guitarist during the eighties and early nineties but no longer able to play, music was a common ground we could share for a minute or two in the stairwell or along the walkway. His taste in music was eighties AOR with some Thin Lizzy and Status Quo thrown in. A musician myself he’d sometimes knock on my door simply to tell me he liked what I was playing on my bass or guitar.

After a while it soon became clear that his struggle with the effects of alcoholism was far from over. Though no longer drinking it had left him physically ravaged, speech slurred, movement slow, and motivation lacking. His ex-wife used to visit him regularly. From their resultant rows it was clear she still cared deeply for him, and equally clear that he had travelled too far along the road of helplessness with no method of stopping or even slowing down. She would get angry with him for missing appointments she’d made for him. Health appointments, prospective job appointments, missing family occasions or embarrassing himself and her at the few he attended. She’d make ultimatums for him to “sort yourself out” or she’d stop helping him but this had no effect. Soon she wised up and stopped giving them, and eventually stopped coming. His days were spent listening to his small vinyl and CD collection and dreaming. I myself have had many a day, week, month, in this state so I understood and tolerated when the music became an irritant. His flat had minimal furnishing, no carpets or even a rug to soak up sound. I would hear him enter his bathroom, and like a soundscape hear in detail whatever bodily function he was performing. That’s the price you pay when forced to live like sardines. It wasn’t that he was loud, sometimes yes. It was more that being woken by Status Quo at four thirty in the morning can jar the nervous system and seriously mess up your morning!

Gradually his behaviour became more erratic. He was back on the bottle for a while. I’d hear the thump on my ceiling as an empty fell to the floor, followed by the thump of him crashing to the floor on his way to passing out. At least then I knew it’d be quiet for a while. Some days he’d fly into a rage, cursing at the world. He’d open his window and throw possessions out onto the grass below. One night last summer he must have passed out with his CD on repeat. I was forced to endure eighties classic “I wanna know what love is” by Foreigner, seventeen times in a row, loud. The song had been a teenage favourite of mine, not anymore. I banged on his door for fifteen minutes before he woke and turned it off, not before giving me a quick breakdown of the song’s arrangement, oblivious to the inconvenience he had caused. His appearance slowly changed. His face became puffy whilst his body lost weight and his clothes existed on the mere memory of having been washed. He had a bout of pleurisy from which he never fully recovered, and would regularly call an ambulance complaining of chest pains. He’d knock on my door offering me a CD for a pound. I was offered The Rolling Stones Greatest Hits, The Blues Brothers, Cream Live at the Royal Albert Hall. I’d give him the pound but never took the CDs. Last autumn, myself and couple of neighbours decided to contact the council and inform them that he’d reached the point of being unable to care for himself. That he needed health intervention. When I made the call I had to explain that I wasn’t making a complaint or asking for him to be evicted, which seemed to be their singular expectation. I was asking for the state machine to intervene, for Social Services to provide a social service. Our estate manager visited him for fifteen minutes. A young woman clearly more at ease behind a desk than with dealing face to face with her tenants. She explained to me that she’d passed on his details to the health service, which was all she was legally required to do.

This winter was a constant back and forth between hospital and the loneliness of home. I’d hear him screaming down the phone saying he needed morphine for his pain. Again we called the council and were told Social Services were on the case. In March this year I came home from work to find my flat flooded. He’d been taken to hospital but left a tap running. It took two days for the water to build up before leaking into my bedroom, front room, hallway, bathroom, and kitchen. As mad as I was during the subsequent two week dry and clean up, it was confirmation that this man should not be left alone. He’d become a danger to himself and potentially others.
Coming home a few days later I saw an ambulance pull up outside my block, and two paramedics wheeling him out. I was surprised and asked them if they were leaving him by himself. They said they’d been told that he had a care worker on the block. The ‘care worker’ turned out to be his next door neighbour, a young man who had his spare key and who would sometimes shop for him or call the ambulance for him. Feeling angry I told them they couldn’t dump him back in his flat and leave him, as it’d just be a matter of time before they’d have to come back for him. That there was no one to care for him. They replied their job was to drive and deliver. When l next saw him I explained to him the flooding he’d caused in my flat, and asked who was taking care of him. He replied no one, that he didn’t need anyone as he was just waiting to die. I gave him my best “don’t give up” pep talk and he shuffled away muttering “soon”.
The next few weeks were spent with him howling to the gods at night screaming for morphine, and shuffling through the estate during the day. Barely holding on to his plastic bag of discount groceries, eyes puffed, nose running, one shoe on his left foot the other foot in a sock. After another walkway conference with my neighbours we decided to contact Social Services directly. No sooner had we made the decision we learnt he’d died, three weeks ago.

It’s ironic. Many have been the day and night when I yearned for the stillness of quiet. Many were the time when anger engulfed me and I raged at him to “turn it down…. Stop the shouting!” But now when silence and tranquil have returned my thoughts turn to the absolute slow cruelty of his death. As the Council, or rather its private contractors clear out the contents of his flat, giving it a quick clean before admitting the next anonymous sardine, I can’t help but meditate on the unnecessary outing of a flame, once so vibrant and creative. I’ve deliberately not mentioned his name, for his life became that of an unmarked grave. He never achieved martyrdom, didn’t sacrifice for a cause. There will be no demonstrations in his name. Those who pass away silently, away from the bright lights of empathy, sympathy, and eulogy. Those lives branded as bland mediocrity. They provide the last will and testament of this cruel barbaric society. He was only someone’s son, husband, bandmate, and friend.
As am I.
Ase

Brothers in arms.

My Uncle has passed.

He was the first male in the family to arrive on these hostile shores, and though low in education he quickly proved he knew more.

More than those who tried to keep him down, he made London his home town.

He created a business, bought a house, built a home, raised a family, he and his spouse.He sent for his younger sibling, my father, and showed him brotherly love, “stop chasing women and learn yourself a trade , and build a house with the money you save !”

For three years they were Plumber and Plasterer, brother and brother working together.

From my Uncle my Father learnt how to be a strong black man in this strange white man’s land.

The business they both built their sons were due to inherit, but I spoilt it all with dreams of being a poet. What they didn’t understand was that my yearning for poetry was testimony to a childhood of dreams they provided for me.

Examples of black manhood, in all it’s strengths and fragility, in all it’s wisdom and brutality.

As their grey hair fades and mine begins anew, I honour my Uncle and my Father for blessing me with a brighter view, with a backbone this country will never break, with a loving heart always seeking more love to create.

With Grandfathers and Uncles of whom l speak with pride to my son, a heroic generation, who came, saw, and got the job done.

Herbert, take your place among the greats,

we remember you, each time we feast from your always abundant plate.

Ase

Black Girls on da Screen in da Hood

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I went to my local cinema to watch a French feature film ‘GirlHood’. A film I’d heard about the day before and decided to take a chance on.

An independent film, it presents a journey of self-discovery for a young African teenage girl trying to find herself whilst negotiating the all too familiar hazards of urban life.

The story is of Mariemme, fifteen, born of African parents and raised in the sprawling Parisian housing projects. It charts her meeting and bonding with ‘Lady’ and her riotous crew. The heart of the film, and its strength, is in its portrayal of friendship between these girls. I found myself engrossed in the intimacies, many unspoken, shared by them whilst they adventured out beyond the concrete landscape they’re forced to call home. There is a tenderness and subtlety to this portrait of black teenage girlhood that I found quiet refreshing whilst at the same time pulling no punches in the challenges these girls face.

Of course it’s not without flaws, and contains many of societies and cinemas standard clichés of Black teenage lifestyles, but simply put I enjoyed the film purely on an emotional level. I enjoyed watching black teenage girls in a foreign city in essence no different to the girls I watch in my classroom in London every week. I enjoyed the glimpse I was given into their crazy, laughter ridden, sometimes dangerous world, and watching Mariemme use her subtle skills and strengths to work her way through this world whilst trying to retain and explore her own sense of self. I especially enjoyed watching a black teenage love affair blossom, one based on trust not lust.

As I left the auditorium feeling pleased with what I’d just seen I saw a poster in the foyer. It was for a UK feature film just released called ‘HoneyTrap’. It’s based on recent tragic true events in South London when a fifteen year old black boy was murdered, and the involvement of his girlfriend in his death. The poster is of a young black couple facing each other in a seductive pose and the byline is; ‘Love can hurt, Trust can kill’

I have yet to see the film so I can make no judgment on its content, but my instant reaction upon seeing the poster was to send a shiver down my spine. “Oh no, here’s another ‘urban’ film reveling in and reinforcing societies negative projections of black youth. Violence, sex, murder, and doing so under the guise of ‘real life events”

Whether this proves true or not my low expectation is rooted in a well established reality. The UK film industry does not make feature films about relationships between UK black girls, or UK black women for that matter, not unless one happens to kill the other. I don’t say this with any element of surprise. Why should the film industry be different to any other industry in its ideas on and treatment of Black people? Art transcends? Not when it comes to race my friend.

It’s in this context that I applaud Girlhood, for bringing the complexities of being a teenage Black girl to life on screen, no small achievement.

I will see HoneyTrap, I hope I’m pleasantly surprised and my negative expectations proved wrong.

 

 

Book Review – The Awakening and other poems……

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‘The Awakening and other poems’

By Michelle Yaa Asentewa

‘The Awakening and other poems’ is a debut anthology by Writer & Teacher Michelle Yaa Asentewa. Its title serves it well, her poems speak of Spiritual awakenings, political awakenings, self-awakenings, the awakening of memory. She weaves these themes, and more, together with a beautiful and powerful subtlety.
The book contains four collections, The Awakening, Sweet Sister, In the Spirit, and Surrender. Together they create a very sensual world, where words and phrases can be tasted and inhaled. ‘The Awakening and other poems’ has reminded me of the sheer expressiveness and depth and joy possible through the written word. Each poem has a sense of being unhurried, of being given the gift of time to unfold and reveal itself. The beauty of her wordplay, I found myself occasionally lingering over two lines, a brief meditation, before continuing my literary journey.
There are poems that deal with loss, with deepest and longest hurt. She shines no gloss on them but dares to look darkness squarely in the eye and find poetic glimmerings of light within. There are poems that celebrate life and the unseen forces that drive it. That sees it hang on a thread yet be strong as an oak tree.

The Awakenings collection carries a thread of ageless defiance, expressed through the re-awakening of an ancestral mother in ‘Bright as the morning rising’, written with such sensuality as to make the reader smell the tree bark. The internal awakening of defiance in ‘Stirrings that will not simmer’. ‘The Awakening’, a celebration of the power of the will. She posits revolution as a metaphysical act, an act of will, as demonstrated by African liberation struggles past and present. ‘Until’ contrasts the defiant anthem of Bob Marley’s ‘War’, with the dulling of the senses endured by the masses. Also among these is ‘Small Days’, a paean to younger days in Guyana. Soul enriching rhythms and country smells, tastes experienced in childhood leave her pen in a melodic patois weaving memories of country folk and country ways.

The ‘Sweet Sister’ collection celebrates womanhood. Michelle Yaa honours her heroines. She brings them to life, not as distant icons but as sensual present day spirit beings still in conversation with her, and they have much to say.
Other aspects of womanhood are explored in ‘Blows’ and ‘Flip Side Woman Aching’, which speak of the complexities of women in abusive relationships. One of the Michelle Yaa’s strengths is the simplicity with which she writes of complex emotions and relationships, devoid of political or social labeling, showing an emotional intelligence that speaks with an honesty that cannot be denied or dismissed. ‘Sweet Sister’, one of my favourites, is a celebration of the African woman, and of herself.

The ‘In The Spirit’ collection has poems for spirits departed, Stuart Hall in ‘Transition’, Herman Wallace (one of the Angola 3) in ‘In the belly of the beast’. Jessica Huntley in ‘Don’t tell me no goodbye’. Maya Angelou in ‘More markable things’. They speak of the fragility of life. She imagines moments of reflection before transition to the afterlife, and finds them to be moments of celebration and wisdom.

The Surrender collection closes the anthology wonderfully. These pieces are an unabashed celebration of life itself. Of it’s immediacy captured in a moment and its infinity over time. Michelle Yaa evokes all five senses and creates a literary sixth. The rapture of ‘A quiet place’, of being at peace with oneself. The psalm-like ‘Thanks giving’, a prayer for the gift of life, and an affirmation of her place in the universe. It has a timeless quality that would see it sit easily among ancient texts. ‘Veranda Life’ speaks of restless spirits, ancestral whispers that cannot be ignored. ‘Intercession’ a petition to the stars that life’s mysteries never end.

This is a superb first anthology by Michelle Yaa Asentewa, announcing herself as a unique voice in the literary community. Her poetry bridges physical and metaphysical concerns. She gives a voice to the voice less, a conscious medium for resolution of lost or departed souls. She’s also a bringer to life, of words, of feelings, of colours, of people, of narratives that reveal the human spirit at its best and most beautiful.

Be awakened, read ‘The Awakening and other poems…’

Breathe

Ankh

 

It’s getting hard to breathe

but breathe we must

They’re making it harder to love

so our love we must trust

Dawn brings new barbarity

we meet with a deeper clarity

They want us on our knees

we who were given birth by ancient tress

Every breath we take the cycle of life we recreate

let that breath breathe for those who can breathe no more

Your lungs

My lungs

inhale the gift of life

exhale a life of love

They want us in fear

our nature is courage

They want us in doubt

we stand resolute

breathing

life

love

life

love

This cycle

they will never break

 Htp

 

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!

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Hands Up, Don’t shoot!

Bang bang you’re dead.

A 500 year old bullet just blew apart your head.

Your present, your past, your possibilities.

Was it really such a good idea to go down on your knees,

Begging please Massa please,

We’re human beings.

 

You begged them once,

You’ve begged them twice,

Haven’t you learnt they don’t do ‘nice’.

Meanwhile you internalize their hate like a battered wife.

This time he’ll change, if not you’ll carry the blame.

What could you have done better, written a more strongly worded letter,

Designed a more hard hitting poster.

You marched across the square preaching their rainbow tribe vision,

when the dust settled and tear gas cleared yours was the only colour in prison.

You struggle to face the fact that your protests really don’t matter,

your head will be served on a platter, whatever.

 

You’re still on the plantation

If you believe you can reverse this racist nation.

Re-education, do it for yourself,

Re-direct your focus on your own internal wealth.

Look them in the eye and tell them no lie,

If they lay hands on you they die.

 

Reciprocity in the face of animosity,

Hit me once I’ll strike you twice,

Let them keep their GM menu

You’re coming with brown rice.

A militia armed with self knowledge,

Rooted in racial pride and courage.

 

Hands up, don’t shoot!

It’s too late to shut the gate,

The white horse has bolted,

He’s stampeding through your town,

Wise up, you’re gonna have to put

This rabid stallion down.

 

You’re gonna have to cross the line,

That 500 year mark in the sand,

The one that left you in no man’s land

And educated you to misunderstand.

 

Revolution is the solution,

But not when it speaks with Liberal elocution.

Like Malcolm said “it’s about bloodshed’

And yours is already on the ground.

 

So get up, stand up and keep your hands down.

Keep hold of your brother, your sister,

don’t let their intellectuals spin you around.

The lamb doesn’t seek respect from the wolf

whose only concern is to make it his meal.

We’re gonna have to come together,

And get clever,

And get real.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whose Childrens Stories?

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Bombs destroy sandcastles on a white sand Gaza beach

limbs not yet fully grown are ripped apart.
In the city a girl sings a song into a camera held by a family Elder,
Her eyes and mouth wide in celebration of her present and potential.
A flash of light, concussion in the air perforates her eardrums, she searches for her family in the rubble, deaf to her own screams, the music stops.

But the protests begin. Good people are adamant that this war the oppressor will not win.

A boy walks alone through a dark Camberwell street,
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