When a popular new independent grocery shop was preparing to open in my neighbourhood a few years ago, some wag scratched a winning slogan in the window: “It’s Not Tesco”. A new collection of poems inspired by Jeremy Corbyn seems to contain a similar killer message.
Poets for Corbyn, a timely publication edited by Russell Bennetts, encapsulates the appeal of the apparently unbeatable Labour leadership candidate who is often best defined by what he is not.
Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West (he’d say)
but someone who has found a way
to voice a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise: No way!
From Nicholas Murray’s ‘JC’.
But what about other politicians? A quick internet trawl produces a selection of – better and worse – satirical verse on contemporary party leaders. Some, like David Cameron, are just what you want them to be. Adam Taylor slickly sums up a supremely successful one-size-fits-all party leader.
I am cleanish, I am newish,
I am greenish, I am blueish,
I am rather nicely spun.
I am David Cameron.
Which illustrates, perhaps, the first rule of successful satirical verse: it should be easy to remember and pleasing to read aloud. Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership election (‘I was the only candidate, it really was a shock’) inspired ‘tongue-in-cheek satire’ in Darryl Beston but the punch often misses its target at least partly because the inconsistent rhyme and rhythm are awkwardly clunky, even if often quite well aimed.
My name is Nicola Sturgeon,
I am now in charge of Scotland
And all we’ll really do now
is to take more cash in hand!
We are the canny jocks
and we now are so independent
But we’ll still scrounge from the Westminster elite
it is our Scottish commandment!
The author of The New First Minister of Scotland: My name is Nicola Sturgeon is careful to add that he means no offence, but Nicola asking Alex what’s underneath his ‘kilt’ (half rhymes with milk) does not bear thinking about.
Labour leaders provide rich pickings – and of course Adam Taylor has a go at Ed Milliband (‘I’m a man who should rebrand’). But there is particular, poignant irony in the verse dedicated to Gordon Brown in 2008:
“At Downing Street upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t Blair
He wasn’t Blair again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away.”
Gordon Brown: Ode to Tony Blair – a parody on lines by the American poet Hughes Mearns – was thought to be penned by a disaffected (Blairite) member of the Cabinet though Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby (until 2015), commented: “It’s the work of a child genius, which rules out most of the Cabinet”.
With hindsight, not being Blair was one of Brown’s great under-exploited assets. But what of the man himself? No need to look further than Ron Butlin who provides a devastating description of the former leader with the Tesco touch, and he has kindly given us permission to reproduce the poem in full. Tony Blair features in Butlin’s new collection of poems, The Magicians of Scotland (a richly layered book which deserves a longer look so we will come back to it another time).
Butlin, a poet who understands the power of public performance, sets the scene firmly in the centre of Edinburgh. (For best effect this should be read aloud. Preferably in the shadow of that monument in the middle of St Andrew Square, Edinburgh’s Poetry Garden, which, incidentally, was opened by Ron Butlin as the city’s Makar in 2008.)
Tony Blair has sincerity stamped on his forehead, a brand name. There is an uncanny resemblance to the finely sculptured eagle glaring down at us from the plinth of the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh.
Tony Blair’s Butterfly Effect
Having glided smoothly upwards –
Up. . .!
And up . . !
And up . . !
Behold, Tony Blair standing where he should be –
poised sixty years and more above
the city of his birth.
Time enough for down-soft feathers to have stiffened
into archangel-strength wings,
time enough to curve himself a profile
of absolute conviction, take on
a gaze of stone-hard sincerity.
Set so high above the rest of us, he hears
God whisper to him,
Any moment now, the ex-PM might feel the need to stretch.
Tony Blair’s butterfly effect – when these wings beat,
distant city walls tumble,
men, women and children die.