Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I was a trainee on the Surrey Daily Advertiser when the National Union of Journalists supported a strike in local papers. It was a cold winter, there was snow and we had no strike pay. Our picket lines were entertaining. There was a lot of flirting. This is what picket lines should be for. I hope the Hollywood writers are enjoying the flirting.

One day we drove to support sacked strikers in Nottingham. The picket line was unlike ours in Surrey - it was boosted by miners. In those days other unions were allowed to do that. Thatcher put a stop to it, to satisfy home counties millionaires who make money from industry but like to live surrounded by trees. There used to be industry in Surrey - pottery on a massive scale from North Downs clay, gunpowder factories and tanneries. Chilworth and Gomshall were once ravaged by it. This is why Surrey is so wooded. All those trees, grown to power factories, took over when industry stopped.

That winter, emotions ran high. It was about sackings, the right to strike, decent pay, being able to pay the rent or support a family. There was talk of the MD wanting to spray our little picket line with printers' ink. The experience drew me further into the union and I was active in the NUJ for years. There've been a few high profile strikes recently - good for the unions who keep alive the principle of withdrawing labour.

I'm in favour of a general strike, actually, to draw attention to climate change. I remember the three day week and the miner's strike of the 70s. It was fantastic, memorable - candle light, talking, no tv. We're all much too taken in by the work ethic and certainly too attached to tv. Chuck it out....

Brendan Cleary and I have joked about poets going on strike, a fantasy the Hollywood writers bring back. I daydreamed about what might happen if poets got their acts together. We could choose anything, really. Solidarity with the Hollywood lot could be a start, or a list of our own demands: a lifetime's free notebooks, the right to lie on the sofa all day, to be noticed. Make up your own.

I started lyrical....the sea receding, unwatched, pens drowning in their ink, blah, blah, blah..... then thought of us all unbothered by words, in the moment; the zen of hoovering, piling washing into machines. Would wayward men return to wives? Would women poets put on red leather gloves and sit in cocktail bars?

Yes, I know, comparison's forced. Poets have no place on TV, the source of all evening entertainment, the box that keeps the country at work and in line and I struggle to sustain the daydream. A poets' strike's about as impossible to contemplate as lettuce growing on the dark side of the moon. Really, no-one would give a monkeys. How could we get one picket line together, and anyway, where would we picket?

But just one more try...there IS a picket line, it looks like this - Mr X the famous male poet, surrounded by the less famous, mostly women, is flicking through his collected poems and looking desperately for anything that might be socially engaged. He booms out an early sonnet about his grandfather mending a car.

Mr Y, the famous performance poet, surrounded by the less famous, mostly women, is pacing up and down, shouting about how he once worked on a building site, on the pavement outside Borders, followed by a security guard.

Miss Z, a wannabe famous performance poet, is reading from her newly published pamphlet on sexual deviance, dressed in a full-length sequin dress and feather hat.

Sitting on camping chairs with a barbeque as a make-shift brazier, is a group of middle aged men and women who look like teachers. They're holding placards with haiku on, drinking Rioja from plastic wine glasses and secretly hoping the police turn up to enforce the ban on street drinking, just so something happens.

One of them spots their teenage kids getting off the bus after school and calls them over, waving. The kids look horrified, their friends stare, they turn away laughing and wander into JD Sports.