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The Masque of Weaponry

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‘Private armament firms, no matter how reputable and incorrupt, depend for their prosperity on the perpetual exasperation of international fears and suspicions … they thrive upon war scares, and they must have occasional wars.’ So concluded The Secret International, an influential pamphlet published in the early 1930s by the Union of Democratic Control. The international arms trade is no less a force for ‘exasperation’ now than it was then, and in Britain, as in most countries with a remunerative arms sector, it has become an adjunct of government. Britain’s defence industry used to put out its wares for international consumption every year, either in Portsmouth or Aldershot, as a government-to-government trade exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy or the British Army. In the 1990s the arms show was outsourced: Defence and Security Equipment International is now run by Clarion Events, ‘a successful, dynamic and creative business’ in Surrey. And business is booming.

Martin Thom’s recent pamphlet Fair is a poetic counterblast to the ‘bloody traffic’, as Fenner Brockway called it. The poem was written last year, as preparations for DSEI’s biennial arms fair were under way at ExCel London, in Docklands. It is a remarkable poem from a tiny publisher and deserves a wider readership than short, under-advertised pamphlets of this kind can normally expect.

Fair is too poised and sure of itself to be a rant: a nuanced, lyrical satire that imagines the spirits of earlier radicals returning to observe the current state of play in Britain:

… And what would Hone and Cruikshank do
With this dismal heartless crew?
And Shelley from the deep returned
To walk again in poetry
What would Shelley find to say
Of murder met with on his way?

The poem goes on to evoke the shades of Eldon, Sidmouth and Castlereagh, the allegorical embodiments of Fraud, Hypocrisy and Murder in The Masque of Anarchy, while sketching parallels with Liam Fox, Amber Rudd and the Privy Council. If anything has changed since Shelley wrote the poem, it is the scale of the damage over which recent incumbents preside and the geographical distances at which they project British arms sales. Shelley’s poem was composed ‘in a torrent of indignation’ in response to news of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Fair proposes that we renew that indignation at the British arms industry’s role in Yemen, and extend our solidarity to the large numbers of migrants displaced by the spread of hi-tech weapons.

Fair’s homage to Shelley suggests that poets who wish to address death, money and power – engulfing, dangerous themes for poetry – find few guidelines in the work of their British contemporaries and may have to fall back on their precursors, in whatever language. (Thom is a translator from Italian, including Leopardi’s Zibaldone, and French, including Pleasure and Being by the Franco-Egyptian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan). Fair strays wide of Shelley’s quatrains, two rhyming couplets apiece. Thom’s rhyme is more supple. His four-stress lines, undivided by stanzas, give shape and structure to a complex range of associations running through the poem as a loosely organised and looping music. At roughly 320 lines the poem is shorter than The Masque of Anarchy, but it opens up an impressive geographical and historical extent. Against ‘the Few, the Good, the Great/In ermine gowns … Hot-desking in the murderous air’, Thom invokes non-Western traditions of music and verse that speak of ordinary lives, always adjourned by war and poverty, and pull them into poem.

The cultures of Yemen, Eastern Europe and other ‘source areas’ of people crossing borders are brought together in an internationalist polyphony, from the journey on the N89 bus of a migrant night cleaner in London or the revolt of indigo farmers in Bengal in the 1850s to a semi-mythic ‘weaver in her sleeping room/Who woken and unwoven strews/On seven seas her deepest blues’. English and Transylvanian folk music, the songs of Oum Kalsoum, the ‘nightingale of the Nile’, and Virgil’s Eclogues are sampled: the sound montage rises through a stifling pile of football shirts in an Oxfam triage centre: ‘Gunners, Hammers, Glovers, Hatters/Linnets and Canaries run/In rayon, lycra, polyester/sorted for dead children.’ (Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le vin des chiffonniers’ is not the only reference here: football fans may recognise Norwich City as the ‘canaries’ and Runcorn FC, last spotted in 2006, as the ‘linnets’.)

The arms fair in Docklands is never far away and neither is Shelley:

Now Fallon and the grinning Fox
Courier ethics to the Docks
And virtue’s mask to tyranny,
To puppet, marionette, fantoche
Taser, manacle and cosh
By Cayman brass-plate devilry

As Thom marshals his argument, his ‘masque of war’ is distended grotesquely across time, lowering over the poem, as the regulars and volunteers who rode down the Peterloo demonstrators become today’s ‘raybanned headphoned hawk-men’ turning human beings ‘to chalk and blood and nothing known’:

… Anarchy the Skeleton
Still works the bellows and the drone
And the keys are rattling still
On the instrument of Hell

The spirit of Shelley has become the field-recorder of a long and terrible lament, using old sound technologies to store his archive

On the Cylinder of the Just
In crystal air
As mothers mourn in broken squares
Of cities far beyond the counting
The desaparecidos of the Fair that
Syllables may not restore.

Shelley brings the poem to a close, walking off into a future of war and ruin. He shakes his hat at the night sky and ‘lost to mortal sight once more/Is gone into the sulphurous rain.’


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