ETHER / Gang of Four

As an Irish, mostly political poet, I’d like to pay homage to an English work of art that has had a powerful  influence on my own artistic and political sensibility.
It is the opening track of an acknowledged masterpiece, ENTERTAINMENT! by Gang of Four.
The music is unique, sparse, raw, clean. Everything counts, every bang of the drum, every thrum of the bass, every chop of the guitar and blow of the melodica.
‘Ether’ is a risky opening track because it is so strange. The music slows down, the guitar clangs like church bells. and the melodica makes you feel like you’re sniffing petrol.
But the fact that it’s a protest song about Ireland is what makes it so edgy. It’s an Irish rebel song by an English band. The lyrics were co-authored by Andy Gill and Jon King and are co-sung, almost as a call-and-response in the ancient troubadour tradition.
Gang of Four lyrics in general are influenced by Situationism, but this track – it claims on Wikipedia – is about ‘special category status prisoners on Northern Ireland’.
The style of the writing mirrors the style of political slogans, chanted at the barricades.
‘Dirt behind the daydream’ is often the main point. English people go on with their daily lives unaware of the terrible realities of what historians dubbed The Dirty War and The Dirty Protest. The two voices reflect the parallel situations. Occupied Ireland. England with its own problems.

Individual lines such as ‘H Block torture’ and ‘fly the flag on foreign soil’ cut to the quick and immediately take the listener out of the zone of anything remotely resembling ‘entertainment’. The listener becomes a victim of torture, drugged on ether, forced to listen to white noise.

The denouement is brilliant, a single slogan which seems to ventriloquise the inexorable logic of the British government itself: 

there may be oil
under Rockall
It’s an anti-imperial artwork of the first order, visceral and conceptual. Play loud!
(Apologies for any adverts below. They’re obligatory. They don’t pay me. I’d have to pay WordPress for them not to appear.)
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Site of Kyd’s burial

Since words nor threates nor any other thinge 
    canne make you to avoyd this certaine ill
Weele cutte your throtes, in your temples praying
    Not paris massacre so much blood did spill..                                           
           Fly, Flye, & never returne.

per. Tamberlaine


The events of 1593 are uniquely awful in the history of English literature.

Though the year began well for Christopher Marlowe with a new play The Massacre at Paris debuting at The Rose, his nemesis was approaching.

Thomas Kyd, a former friend and roommate of Marlowe’s, author of the influential revenge drama The Spanish Tragedy, was enjoying his sixth year in service to an unknown aristocrat, possibly the Earl of Sussex or the Earl of Derby. He would soon lose his post, his reputation and his liberty.

Plague returned, shutting the London theatres, and natives were becoming increasingly resentful of the few thousand French, Belgian and Dutch immigrants who were resident in the city.

On May 5, a 53-line piece of racist doggerel was fixed on the door of the Dutch Church at Austin Friars. The unknown author signed it ‘Tamberlaine’.

This was to be the death warrant of the two greatest poet-playwrights before Shakespeare.

Poet, walking artist and psychohistorian Niall McDevitt tells the story of how the Elizabethan ‘police state’ tortured and – arguably – murdered Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe.

Sun 23 Jun meeting at Blackfriars station (north bank) at 2pm. The walk will last approximately two and a half hours. £10







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‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough’ – Dr Faustus


The death of Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating if disturbing stories in the history of English literature, a tragedy more purgative than cathartic. Though Marlowe was murdered by government agents in a government safehouse in Deptford Strand, it was misrepresented as a pub brawl, a myth that persists to this day.

Join poet, walking artist and psychohistorian Niall McDevitt for a thoroughgoing exploration of the story, and immersion in Elizabethan history, with a stunning riverside backdrop.

We will begin at Island Gardens at the so-called ‘Omphalos’ of the Isle of Dogs; walk under the Thames – yes! – to Greenwich Palace; visit the site of Marlowe’s death and coroner’s inquest; and see his burial place in a pauper’s grave in Deptford Green.

We will finish by discussing the 1001 Marlowe conspiracy theories in a Wetherspoon pub in Surrey Quays – hopefully without any poets being murdered.

Meeting at Island Gardens DLR station 2pm. The walk will last three hours and finish at Surrey Quays London Overground station. £10.

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Image result for harry fainlight


Harry Fainlight was an unclassifiable poet who came to prominence in the Anglo-American counterculture of the 1960s but later became a casualty of the reactionary British culture of the 1970s.

That he was a lyric poet with an original gift makes his short unfinished oeuvre important, but that he was also voicing his experiences of Jewishness, homosexuality, drug-taking and mental illness guarantee him a future readership in many quarters.

Join poets, authors, editors and friends in this special tribute to Harry Fainlight’s life and work at the HORSE HOSPITAL.

With Jeremy Reed and the Ginger Light , Rob Dickins, Dave Tomlin, Su Rose, Patricia Scanlan, Phil Baker and Niall McDevitt

Thurs May 23 at the Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1JD
Door: 7pm. £5

Image of Harry Fainlight from Screen Test by Andy Warhol. 


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St Helens
Let us suppose – as Geoffrey Marsh does  in his TLS article of April 19 – that Shakespeare moved into the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate before 1594; and that he was staying in property owned by the Leathersellers Hall.  It is exciting stuff. We can pin the elusive poet to a specific area for a five year stint or more, and the composition of certain masterpieces therein. But a riot of questions is prompted.

It is surprising that Marsh does not suggest how or why Shakespeare might have ended up staying with the Leathersellers. His father John Shakespeare, a glover, may well have had friends in London who lived with the Leathersellers, and would have had contact with the organisation himself. Older Shakespeare names are on the records. (I first heard this theory from Jerome Farrell who is the archivist at Leathersellers Hall today). It is a charming thought that Shakespeare’s friend and publisher Richard Field was also the son of a tanner, and that Christopher Marlowe was the son of a cobbler. We have much to thank the leather-workers for.

Marsh believes the move to St Helens was a mark of Shakespeare’s prosperity.  However, with paternal help from professional connections, Shakespeare may have found modest accommodation in Great St Helen Street before he began accumulating serious wealth. I tend to imagine a writerly bolthole. For comfort he could retreat to Stratford or stay in the great houses of his distinguished friends, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl and Countess of Pembroke, et al.  It could even mean he was based in St Helens for the better part of ten years. (His other London residencies were seemingly short-lived: Shoreditch in the parish of St Leonards; the Liberty of the Clink at Southwark in the parish of St Saviour’s; Silver Street in the parish of St Olave’s; and the Blackfriars Gatehouse in the parish of St Andrew by the Wardrobe).

Marsh’s supposition is that Shakespeare moved into the parish before the rebarbative Lord Mayor of London for 1594-95, John Spencer, who acquired Richard III’s former home of Crosby Hall. Spencer was a classic Richard III-style machiavel – in the flesh! –  a ruthlessly self-aggrandising member of the mercantile elite. He personified civic antitheatricalism describing Elizabethan theatres as ‘places of meeting for all vagrant persons and maisterles men that hang about the Citie, theeves, horsestealers, whoremoongers, coozeners, connycatching persones, practizers of treason and other such lyke.’ As Sheriff of London in 1584 he wrongfully imprisoned three of the illustrious Bassano brothers, musicians of the court and the theatres. Enter Shakespeare’s neighbour from hell! No sooner had Spencer moved into the same parish as the genius of Elizabethan theatre than he began using his powers to clamp down on it.

However it is surprising that in a lengthy TLS article, Marsh does not mention the famous counter-attack. Shakespeare and his company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were neither helpless nor ‘maisterless’. Their patron was one of the most powerful men in the realm, a privy councillor, and first cousin of Queen Elizabeth: Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Chamberlain. In an amazing pre-emptive strike, Carey wrote a letter on Oct 8 1594, to the outgoing Lord Mayor Richard Martin, asking permission for Lord Chamberlain’s men to play within the city during the winter season. The object was twofold: 1) to find an indoor winter theatre; 2) to cement a deal in advance of Spencer’s mayoralty.  ‘After my hearty commendations where my now company of players have been accustomed for the better exercise of their qualities, & for the service of Her Majesty if need so, require to play this winter time within the City at the Cross Keys in Gracechurch Street. These are to require & pray your Lordship the time being such as thanks be to god there is now no danger of the sickness) to permit and suffer them so to do.’

The ploy didn’t work. Spencer – no NIMBY – spent his year in charge and succeeding years trying to abolish theatre not only within the city but within the liberties and suburbs also.. His series of letters culminate in a demand for a ‘final suppressing’ of the art. Spencer, not Elizabeth, may have been the figure behind the line from Sonnet 66: ‘And art made tongue-tied by authority.’ Thankfully, playhouses began flourishing again after the antitheatrical nadir of 1597 and humanism defeated puritanism for the time being.

Finally, Marsh failed to mention another intimidating neighbour at St Helen’s. Henry Maunder appears in the same lay subsidies as Shakespeare and must have lived close to the poet. He is famous, or infamous, as the man who arrested Christopher Marlowe.

St Helens 2


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Gramsci’s tomb in the Acatholic Cemetery in Rome

The Ashes of Gramsci is a poem – and early book – by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The book was published in 1957 when the poet was  35.  The poem was written in 1954 and caused a furore in Italian literary circles. It was seen as ‘exhibitionist’.

It is an in situ poetic meditation at the site of the Italian Marxist philosopher’s tomb in the Acatholic Cemetery of Rome a.k.a. The Protestant Cemetery and The English Cemetery.

Formally it is in Dante-esque terza rima. An early phrase ‘vast semicircles’ seems to conjure Dante’s presence in a description of the Roman skyline.

As an elegy for a murdered man by a murdered man, it may be unique. Technically, Gramsci died of ill health but that was after 11 years’ imprisonment in hellish conditions followed by a state hospitalisation that deliberately finished off the job. It is one of the worst and most drawn-out martyrdoms any dissenter has ever experienced.

I feel how wrong
– here among the quiet of these graves –
and yet how right – in our unquiet

fate – you were, as you drafted your final
pages in the day of your murder.

Pasolini’s canvas is a rich depiction of a graveyard, literally one of the coolest places in Rome as it is overhung with trees and foliage, a wonderful place to escape from the sun, famed for Keat’s grave and Shelley’s tomb.

Ah, how well
I understand, silent in the end’s wet

humming, here where Rome is silent,
among wearily agitated cypresses,
next to you, Spirit whose inscription calls out

Shelley…. How well I understand the vortex
of feelings, the capricious fate (Grecian
in the aristocratic Northern traveller’s

heart) which swallowed him in the dazzling
turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea…

Though set in the cemetery the poem’s focus leaps to various sites of Italian geography with swift, deft brushstrokes. But it is also firmly anchored in and evocative of the Testaccio area, a working class district known for its abattoir, prostitutes, and an ancient artificial hillside made from empty amphorae. The Tiber is always close by.

The poem is a searching song of ambivalences, containing many of the themes we associate with the poet.


Pasolini at Gramsci’s grave





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The wonderful Taqasim Oud Club have invited me to be guest poet at their final event in 2018.

I shall perform two 15 minute sets with musical interludes and accompaniment at the Poetry Cafe on Monday November 19. Poems shall touch on themes of London, Jerusalem and Babylon/Iraq.

There is an open floor in the first half of the event. Poets can register from 7pm.

Think I’ll be bringing my bodhran for what promises to a beautiful one-off.

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