Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Patrick Jones is a socialist poet and playwright from Wales. His play Everything Must Go played to packed audiences in Cardiff earlier this year. Patrick has recently released a CD of his poetry set to music, Commemoration and Amnesia, and has also had four poetry books published. Martin Chapman spoke to him about his plays, poetry and politics.
Everything Must Go was very successful. Why do you think it was so popular?
I think that it's because it wasn't really a play in the strict sense. It did piss a lot of people off, because they wanted to see a 'play', but it was in the middle, in that it was really just a social commentary acted out through drama, poetry and music.
A lot of people either loved it or hated it, which is great because it provoked a reaction. It was just a very honest play, and my reactions to what I saw going on and the characters I created were people I knew and were part of me. So it's quite a pure play, because it wasn't a play--it was almost like real life perhaps, trying to make sense of the way the world or Wales has become.
Music and films often attract a huge response and following, but theatre and poetry are often rejected in terms of large participation. Your play was different. Why do you think that was?
It did appeal to young people, partly because of the Manic Street Preachers' involvement. It did get a lot of Manics fans into the theatre, who then hopefully made up their minds to see if it was Everything Must Go, the play of the album, or just a play, and hopefully they understood what it was. It's just a play, and it didn't try and be something it wasn't. It was just a straight story really, a straight journey of the characters which hopefully people could actually relate to and see themselves or people they knew.
Do you think the play would have got the same response if it had been made 20 or 30 years ago?
Probably not, because I think the Welsh bands have helped Welsh culture get outside of Wales. And, funnily enough, 15 or 20 years ago there were very few Welsh playwrights. Even now there are only four or five who are well known just within Wales. Ed Thomas, Dick Edwards and Ian Rowlands are good Welsh playwrights. The time is right for it in a way. After New Labour I think there are a lot of disappointed hopes as well. It is a political play--it's frustration--it is asking where we're going next.
Often people say they are apolitical but actually hold quite acute political views. Did you intend to draw this out of the audience?
Yes, I suppose ultimately you challenge people into saying yes or no. I was watching Ken Loach's Land and Freedom the other day. I was so moved by it because the language, how people were speaking, seemed very naive--which was beautiful because they were saying things that we do hold, but maybe in the cynical, ironic 1990s we are afraid to say. My aim was very naive but honest, so I think people do decide then, yes or no.
The thoughts, words and actions of Nye Bevan were central to the play--why was this?
In all honesty, I'm no huge political theorist. I just know what I like, I suppose. Nick, my brother, often laughs at me because he thinks I'm a bit thick with politics, but because of being a poet I suppose I feel I'm not too practical. I sometimes speak or feel things from a different level. Nye Bevan stood out to me because of what he said and what he stood for. I know he had a lot of failings and a lot of problems. I started off in the first draft with quotes from Robert Owen, William Morris and the Chartists, but we had to hone it down, otherwise it would have perhaps become too polemical. But I stuck with Nye Bevan because he was Welsh, because he stood up for things and he had nice phrases which to me were very poetic.
When dealing with the experience of young people in the valleys, you don't confine this to unemployment but also to the experience of the mind dulling work. How important was this to you?
Yes, it's definitely important. People say about unemployment that there are jobs out there. Yes, there are jobs, but I find so many are totally alienating, mind numbing and soul destroying, which people have to accept. It has always been the case. The mines exploited people as much as the factories. I'm not harping back to the 'good old days', but I am questioning the 'now' days and raising the question of where do we go next? Perhaps Tower Colliery is a very good example of what work should be about, but people are afraid to say that. We all think we should give millions to companies like LG to come here. Then they ruin us while giving us a couple of crumbs.
How would you describe your own politics and how much of this did you insert into the play?
I would say I hold socialist principles. I think that is the best way of describing it. I've always been quite dubious of saying I am this or I am that. From my standpoint it's a bit impractical the way I think about things--it wouldn't work in real life. I'm a bit of an idealist. It's hard to pigeonhole what I feel and what sort of policies I want. Going through the election manifestos for the Welsh Assembly, a lot of what Socialist Labour said I agreed with. A lot of what the United Socialists said I agreed with. Nothing that the Tories said I agreed with! Some of what Labour said I agreed with.
Someone said the other day that writing is classless. I'm struggling with that. I don't know what that means. I don't think my writing would reach the middle class or upper class--maybe the middle class, perhaps, because they think about things.
Is it right to talk of a specifically Welsh cultural scene?
I think there are many Welsh cultural scenes. I think the south gets over-noticed. There is stuff going on in North Wales, with a lot of Welsh language poets that I've come across recently and North Walian bands that people don't hear about. I think we are a victim of our own success with 'Cool Cymru'. Perhaps people think it's pretty cool in Wales, with a lot going on--which there is--but I don't think there is a unifying structure. All the bands are totally different and come from different angles and different environments, and have different things to say and different reasons to be in a band. I think we are struggling with Welsh writers. There is good stuff going on but there is a totally useless Welsh poetry scene, as well. There is a Welsh poetry scene but it is irrelevant to modern life. All I feel is I can't get too complacent, because there are so many problems in Wales at the moment.
You are a declared internationalist. In your play Catatonia's 'International Velvet' was used in an ironic way showing how 'Welshness' was used to disguise the grim reality of everyday life. But at the recent Catatonia concert in Margam Park it was sung by the audience as if it were a new Welsh national anthem. How do you feel about that?
A bit dubious, because I'm really against Welsh nationalism. I think it can become a bit of a cheap, easy option sometimes. I don't think Cerys [from Catatonia] was being ironic or anything. I think she was being quite heartfelt, which I admire, but I don't wake up every morning thinking thank god I'm Welsh. I think I'm glad I'm living or not bombed out in Bosnia or Kosovo. I'm against too many borders and nationalities.
So I am a bit dubious about it. I write about Wales, and a lot of English people accuse me of being very proud of Wales and of pouring my bleak Celtic melancholia over people, but we are all melancholic. I don't think being Welsh or English matters.
On the left there has been a long tradition of theatre and poetry being used as part of a wider approach to getting across socialist ideas in an accessible and enjoyable manner. Do you see yourself as part of this tradition?
Yes, definitely. To me writing was quite a radical way of expressing myself and a way of fighting against the system, and apart from Jeffrey Archer you don't get too many right wing writers and poets. I think this is a way of critiquing the society we live in, and for years and years it has been a right wing society and very unsocialistic.
I've obviously borrowed from and been inspired by left wing writers, people like Noam Chomsky and Lynton Kwesi Johnson, people who stand up for things.
Some people don't think that art and politics mix. How do you see the relationship?
I'm a bit dubious of art that gets too preachy--I feel it might lose the artistic sentiment. But I definitely feel that art has to be about everyday life and challenge our perception of life, which is critical. I always think politics is about the way we live and the opinions and beliefs we hold. Even our morals can be quite political. I don't think art has to be political--for a lot of great artists it's the scream, or the psychological scream, but I do feel it has got to be real--it's got to be accessible. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is my favourite play. It is very political--full stop--but it is also very human. I like that kind of thing when you don't think you're being preached at, but ultimately you are being made to question your beliefs, whether they are political, moral or spiritual.
Poetry is central to your work. Why is this so important?
I can never write long enough to get a novel! I see things in images. I can almost see a poem on a page as I'm writing it, and what I want it to say, and what I want it to look out to. Initially a lot of poets like Dylan Thomas, Idris Davies, Alan Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath influenced me.
I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder being from the valleys, which had a very macho culture and associated violence. I was always very quiet at school, and being a writer you have to be very strong willed to beat the system.
What do you think of politics today?
It doesn't excite me at all. It's such a disapointment, a spiritual disappointment, let alone political. The people who are leading us don't seem to have a soul, or realise what real life is all about. There are a few people who seem to stand up to things but it doesn't inspire me. I think Britain is on the road to a capitalist selfish society apart from the great pockets of protest and dissent, which are out there but all very fractured. It would be great if a party could rise which could unify all these different elements, which I suppose the Socialist Workers Party does to a point, but I still think people are put off by it because they don't quite know what it entails. They all think you're militants with bazookas behind people. So I feel very disappointed. I don't see much hope in New Labour, the Tories or Plaid Cymru, to be honest.
You obviously support people fighting back and you're supporting the lobby of the Labour Party on 26 September. Why?
I feel that it's making a stand and a chance for people to say they are not happy with Labour. If they'll listen is a another thing. It's about making our voices heard and perhaps things like that do actually unify a lot of groups, from the green activists to the animal rights and the anti-hunt people, to the more hard left wing politics. I think we all share similar things but we are not unified. Things like this are a show of unity and strength, and hopefully there is going to be a bit of art there as well!
What is your hope for the future?
Being idealistic and not very pragmatic, I don't know what would be the ideal world or the ideal way ahead, but I suppose destroying things or critique is a way forward. I think we need people who are going to come through politically, who have got a different vision, a more socialist, spiritual vision. I do think socialism is very spiritual compared to other political things.
We need something that deals with the modern world. It's no good saying we've all got to smash machines up or take a Luddite approach or go back--the world has changed. I still think there are beliefs and modern morality which are being glossed over by all the political parties.
It needs someone to rise up, so to speak. Tony Benn comes to mind as someone I really admire, somebody who really believes in his beliefs. People like that, but from a younger generation who have got a lot to say.
Everything Must Go is about to tour Britain and Patrick's new play Unprotected Sex is opening in Cardiff in October