Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Interview

'RATHER YOU THAN ME'

The poet and broadcaster Mike Rosen spoke to Peter Morgan about his new book Carrying the Elephant

  • Mike Rosen's book, Carrying the Elephant, tells the story of his life, his leftwing upbringing and his family

  • The core of the book is when Mike writes about the death of his 18 year old son Eddie

  • On 26 April 1999 Eddie went to bed complaining of feeling unwell. The next morning Mike found him dead. He died of meningococcal septicaemia

  • The death of Eddie

    'Dear joe, your wild noisy huge brother
    is dead. I couldn't do what my parents did:
    bring two boys, four years apart through the maze.'

    (Carrying the Elephant, p47)

    Was writing your book one of the ways of coming to terms with the death of your son?

    Writing is one of the ways of expressing the things that happen to you. If you write then it is the thing that you can do. So in a way I cannot answer that question, as it's what I do when things happen. If things are troubling me, or if I'm excited by something, then writing happens first. It's something that I have got used to doing over the last 30 years, as a way of responding to the world and the things that happen. Writing the book was not the only way of coming to terms with the death of Eddie.

    A lot of people were affected by his death--there were the people in his immediate family, his friends and so on. Our most immediate response was to communally celebrate his life and mourn what had happened, and the front door was open for anyone. Writing didn't happen for nearly a year.

    There is obviously immense sadness in some of your writing, but also anger expressed in the poem about mourning:

    'don't tell me that I mourn too much
    and I won't tell you that you mourn too much
    don't tell me that I mourn too little
    and I won't tell you that you mourn too little
    don't tell me that I mourn in the wrong place
    and I won't tell you that you mourn in the wrong place...
    I may get it wrong, I will get it wrong, I have got it wrong
    But don't tell me'
    (p59)

    Were you angry with people telling you how to cope with what happened?

    It wasn't so much directed at any individuals, but more at the public space where there is a tremendous amount of advice. People press books into your hands, books like 'bad things happen to good people', and people want to tell you how to do it, but you can't be told. I supposed what I was saying in that poem was that you must allow people the space and time to figure out how best to do it. There is such a lot of finger-wagging going on in this country about the ways in which we are supposed to run our lives, a kind of new informal police that present us with all kinds of orthodoxies.

    What I am saying is that there are no orthodoxies and you have to work it out. Just as we say with sexuality--people must be given the space and time between consenting people, and how dare governments interfere? They may not interfere with funerals but there are prevailing cultures and prevailing ideologies that say you should do it this or that way.

    One of your poems is about the man next door:

    'I didn't see him for several
    days. Those first days. Then, in the alley between
    our houses I saw him. He saw me. We stood face to face.
    --Rather you than me, he said.
    We went on standing.
    --And the best of luck Saturday, he said.
    I thought, but the funeral isn't on Saturday.
    --And he said, Arsenal playing Spurs.'
    (p43)

    What was your response to that?

    Well, he's right, isn't he? From his point of view, he's saying the most honest and profound and most kindly thing. There's no bullshit, because that's what everybody thinks. What he's saying is that this would be the most terrible thing that could happen to anyone. So he's not giving me a great lecture or telling me the right way to behave, or giving me any phoney guff about how it will get better with time. He's trying to think of the nicest possible thing he could say. It was a fine example of how by not doing the convention he is actually doing all the right stuff. I put the poem in so people could do their own figuring--to think of what they might say. After Eddie died I was very lucky because people offered me interesting and engrossing work. That gave me a space and a time to get on with things. It gives you a kind of focus away from being sucked into a whirlpool. It's about engaging with the world, and being involved in some kind of work that you can tell yourself is productive.

    The poems are not just about your son, but also your family, growing up, politics, culture, your life, dreams, hopes and so on. Did you plan this or did the poems come together as you went along?

    I'd written some of the pieces about Eddie and then I wanted to lay down some grid references on a map. What I'm saying is that here are some coordinates that make up a combination of identity, culture, class, politics, where you are at. I was playing around with real events, some dreams and some imagined events. So where I would find a gap, or if the map wasn't there, then I'd put in something else so it had some kind of shape. It's never complete and it could never be complete. But that is where the Eddie thing fits in--it is part of what I am and I have to ask, how does that fit in the total shape of things as far as I'm concerned?

    The book started becoming planned after 20 or 30 pieces, as I thought I could do a life span with an overarching theme. There'd be several plot lines running through it--there'd be straight chronology, but then there would be things that people could pick up and they'd bounce back. There might be a humour thread or a political thread running through it. I quite like the idea of the reader being active. If you write something and it's like the dots on a puzzle and the reader joins it up, then they spot it. For example, in the book when my mum died I used the phrase 'lost it' and I think somewhere I used the same phrase when Eddie died. I quite like the idea that people make their own lines between the dots.

    Politics and the anti-war movement

    Mike Rosen in New York. This picture was taken in January 1999 by Eddie's older brother Joe
    Mike Rosen in New York. This picture was taken in January 1999 by Eddie's older brother Joe

    'It's a great turnout, they say. Bevan speaks. Then up steps Martin's Uncle John. His lips are tight. "They've gone in," he says, "the tanks have gone in." They all look at each other, scared and tired. It's a blow. My father puts his hand through his hair. My mother rubs something invisible between her thumb and finger. It's that bad. I'm thinking that Anthony Eden must have sent the tanks towards the Suez Canal. "They'll be in the streets of Budapest by now," John says.'(p6)

    I was only ten or 11 at the time of Hungary so that poem was when we're in Trafalgar Square. The tanks are going in and I think they are going into Port Said but instead they are going into Budapest. I remember it so clearly, standing next to the fountain hearing all this and trying to figure it out. But there were shock waves going through the house and it was all too much for my parents. That was when the break with Stalinism came, but then they kept trying to put together some other way of incorporating the ideas that they held dear. I then went to university in the 1960s. All these other ideas were fermenting--there was the influence of Sartre, Trotsky, Mao and all the Third World stuff. I got active at that time and you could see that it wasn't just Stalin or the Labour Party--there were all these other choices. It also threw you back to Marx--I would say that was one of the best spin-offs of the 1960s.

    What would you say is the difference between the anti Vietnam War movement then and the anti-war movement today?

    In the 1960s there was a war that was grinding on and on, a war that began with the French going into Indo-China and demonstrations in the 1950s. Then you had the CND marches and the people starting talking about Vietnam during 1962 and 1963. The war had been going on for five years. So I suppose the crucial difference today is that people keep holding their breath. Also we have a different society today. At some point the actions of the West against peoples in the Third World will take on a completely different complexion given that so much migration has gone on. This may sound crazy, but imagine a situation where the US is engaged in a war in Africa--this would have an immense impact on African-Americans. Today we are in a situation in which a major war is about to be unleashed on Iraq, yet there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Muslims who live in this country who see some connection with those who are being attacked. It sounds an obvious thing to say but there was not the same number of Vietnamese in Britain during the anti-war movement in the 1960s--this is a crucial difference. If Blair and Straw get involved in anything that lasts more than a week they will have fundamental problems with demonstrations, disorder and so on. And that's not just with the likes of us lefties but also with people who see themselves as Muslims. This is a completely new order of a politics going on here that has never happened before. This is one of the reasons why some of the demonstrations have been so big recently.

    Another crucial difference is the rise of the anti-capitalist movement. During the anti Vietnam war movement there wasn't the anti-globalisation movement like today. During the 1960s I remember listening to a shop steward who came over from the Renault factory in France in the middle of the general strike and he was essentially arguing for workers' control--this was in the middle of the Vietnam War. There was a tremendous focus on the idea of workers' control and occupying factories. Today if vast numbers of workers occupied the factories then the debate would be different. The debate seems to have shifted away from simply who owns and controls the means of production to how the system itself is at fault. This is not a criticism, but if you cast your mind back to the 1960s and the big sit-ins there was very much the notion that what we made ought to belong to all of us. And if we occupy the factory it would raise this question.

    I filmed in the Triumph sit-in in Meriden when I was at film school. There was one guy who was a Labour Party shop steward who locked the gates. There were all these crates full of bikes in the factory that was being occupied. I asked the bloke what he was going to do about that and he said, 'well, we control it so it's up to us.' The workers had a sense that they made stuff that was valuable and you could see a change among them. You can only hope that the anti-globalisation movement today will go in that direction.

    Education, education, education

    'I got a letter home saying that RE is compulsory. So I sent a letter back saying it isn't. They sent me a letter back saying but it is. So I sent them a letter back saying I've got the government papers saying it isn't and you're breaking the law saying that it is. And they sent a letter back saying OK it isn't and we'll write a letter home to everyone telling them it isn't.'(p61)

    You said when you write you want to engage the reader and make them think. How would you sum up what both the Tories and Labour have done to education and the development of children's reading skills?

    They have basically introduced a reading system that is surrounded with questions that teachers are supposed to ask and test the kids on. Imagine any book or text that you put in front of kids. Instead of that being an open-ended discussion in which the kids talk about the things that puzzled them, what they liked and disliked, the patterns and shapes they might see, what the book reminds them of or anything to do with where the writing comes from, now any notion that you can discover things and investigate a piece of writing has gone.

    There are frameworks of very fixed questions that teachers are supposed to ask kids, and there are right and wrong answers. It's almost as if there is a curtain of phoney facts that you are supposed to know in order to respond. So, for example, if you have a poem, the teacher knows the questions she or he is supposed to ask and these are the questions that have only got right and wrong answers--like 'what kind of poem is it?' or 'how many adjectives are there in it?' This is an ideological position. What you are saying is that children are not able to formulate their own opinions and their own ideas.

    On top of that comes testing. If you teach to test you narrow down the possible range of responses--you say to the pupil, 'your experience is invalid.' The only thing that is valid is what is taught and what is tested. This is an incredibly centralised, authoritarian straitjacket and it is so undemocratic. This makes learning so unbelievably boring, alienating and tedious. Also it breaks the connection between the reader and the writer. Why the hell do any of us bother to write? Because something matters to you as a writer, but also you hope it engages and matters to the person who is reading. You read because you want to have some fun, or you want to find something serious, or you want to be scared. Then this great curtain comes in and says ignore all that stuff--forget that stuff that says reading actually matters. Instead you have to say whether it's a narrative poem or not, or if you can count the adjectives. This is a fundamental intrusion into what is supposed to go on.

    In the 1960s and 1970s people tried to create the idea that reading is partly discussion and about making comparisons with, say, one book and another book--saying, why do people take up different ways of looking at things? If you break that and say reading really is about learning whether books have beginnings, middles and ends, or something utterly futile like that, you break what is so vital--the fact that ideas matter.

    The Tories would not have dared to impose the literacy strategy that Labour has done. The child doesn't exist in the literacy strategy--there is only the curriculum. It is utterly anti-humanist--it does not respect the existence of different children, different needs and different ideas. The curriculum says to teachers: you will teach an adjective, you will do a narrative poem and teachers have to break it down into worksheets in order to be able to fit the bill. You are left with what old Gradgrind in Hard Times would have dreamt of--there's this great moment in that scene where Dickens is having a go at that kind of education, and the kid says, 'I wonder' and Gradgrind says, 'Never wonder.' It's exactly the same today--you can see a kid putting their hand up today and saying, 'miss, I wonder if...' and the teacher would say, 'sorry, we haven't got time for that--we must get on with the adjectives.'

    There are always attempts by the authorities to impose themselves on the curriculum because they are so nervous--because schooling is about the ideological formation of pupils who then go into society. When the 11-plus was utterly discredited and comprehensive schools were coming in, there was immense power in the hands of teachers and progressive opinion. A reaction occurred in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and they have been able slowly to break down the control of teachers and progressive opinion in schools. Yet they have painted themselves into a corner. Now they have a system that isn't working on their terms and it isn't working for pupils or teachers. This situation cannot prevail or be sustained. I would have thought there will be some big changes over the next ten years, but that also depends on what happens outside of education and the way the movement goes. I cannot believe that this kind of rigid control can survive. We'll see what happens in the anti-globalisation movement, the anti-war movement, and this will have an effect on how people view education. I do a lot of teachers' meetings and there is an immense yearning on the part of the teachers I meet to go back to treating literature as a free-wheeling way of talking about ideas. It's for this reason that I am so optimistic.

    Carrying the Elephant by Mike Rosen is published by Penguin, £7.99. To get a free copy of the book turn to page 25. Mike will be reading from the book and signing copies on Tuesday 10 December at Bookmarks co-hosted by Socialist Review. Phone 020 7637 1848 to reserve a place.


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