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DIY, Not 'Me, Me, Me'

23/06/2015 10:41 BST | Updated 22/06/2016 10:59 BST

I was pleased to be among the few hundred people that gathered in the Camden Centre for Stand Up and Spit: The Big One, which saw stunning sets from poets including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Joolz, Attila the Stockbroker, Janine Booth, relative newcomer Emily Harrison and others. This was the latest in a series of events put together by the night's opening act, poet Tim Wells working with live literature producers Speaking Volumes, to celebrate the ranting poetry scene of the 1980s, of which he had been a part. A month before I had been at the British Library for the 'Talking Liberties' panel discussion, where Wells was joined on stage by journalists Gary Bushell and Suzanne Moore, and the poet Salena Godden. That event had also highlighted for me a particular radical and pre-Thatcherite ethos that might also be associated with the ranting scene, and its inheritors.

If this has all passed you by, it is not too late to catch up. There are one or two more events in the series, and there is plenty to read. Tim Wells has been writing regularly on his Stand Up and Spit blog, also posting flyers, press clippings and other ephemera. A special issue (No. 64) of Tim Wells's own Rising magazine (a compilation of fanzine and music press reviews of the time) was being distributed free at the Camden Centre gig. One clipping from 1984 attributes the term 'ranting verse' to the now late Steven Wells (1960-2009) a.k.a. Swells--and no relation of Tim--before helpfully describing the genre as 'a new form of poetry which has as its main objective entertainment, information and humour, usually in an oral rather than a printed setting [and] generally well left of centre'. Ideas which echo Farrukh Dhondy's earlier introduction to Linton Kwesi Johnson's 1980 collection Inglan is a bitch (Race Today Publications), where Dhondy talks of Johnson's work as 'political verse with an accessibility as never before', also noting its 'value as "entertainment", something that Linton insists in conversations and interviews is the sine qua non of his work.'

Although the Stand Up and Spit project is firmly focused on poetry and performance of the early 1980s, it is no mere exercise in nostalgia. The continued relevance of the often hard-hitting and politically acute literatures that the scene produced or adopted was demonstrated again and again at the Camden Centre. It was there in Janine Booth's timeless crowd-pleaser 'Mostly Hating Tories', and in 'Real Rape', her compelling analysis of sexual violence and its many apologists. (I did say this material was hard-hitting.) We were privileged, too, to hear Linton Kwesi Johnson perform a rousing acapella version of 'All Wi Doin is Defendin'. Although it was written over forty years ago, and the years have introduced a more fragile edge to LKJ's voice, the poem felt no less vital or contemporary today. Johnson also brought a deeper sense of historical perspective and personal political engagement to the event, speaking movingly about being on the organising committee of the International Book Fair of Radical, Black and Third World Books, which had been held annually in this same hall from 1982-1995. This was where he had first seen the late Michael Smith perform--'on this very stage'--and Johnson ended his set by reading Smith's best known poem, 'Mi Cyaan Believe It', in tribute.

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Linton Kwesi Johnson at the Camden Centre. Photo: Speaking Volumes.

Michael Smith (1954-1983) was not the only absent friend whose vital contribution to that '80s scene was celebrated. Swells, too, was much missed, so Attila the Stockbroker's inclusion of one of Swells's poems in his set was both apt and welcome. Similarly, Joolz--whose newer works on show at the Camden Centre had all the laconic bite, linguistic precision and killer timing of her early '80s poems such as 'War of Attrition' or 'Denise'--talked about the moment in her Bradford living room when Swells had come up with the idea of ranting verse in the first place: a moment cast, she said, in the kind of uniquely alcoholic and diabetic haze that comes from sharing a bottle of sweet English sherry.

In her poetry, Joolz has always been able to shift in an instant from a wistful deadpan to righteous anger, and nowhere more so here than in 'Narcotika', a poem about the so-called sex industry's institutionalised abuse of women on UK streets: 'I'm not supposed to talk about this,' she said. 'I'm not supposed to notice.' If you don't know her work, the Abstract Sounds compilation Joolz (Recorded) 1983-1985, which includes her various collaborations with Jah Wobble, was recently released on MP3 and is a brilliant introduction.

It wasn't all plain sailing at the Camden Centre. While John Cooper Clarke was on his usual blistering form, the extended routine of 'wife' gags that ran through his set was old-fashioned and sexist, but sadly none seemed brave enough to call him on it; not that I saw, anyway. And putting Phil Jupitus (ranting era nick-name: 'Porky the Poet') in the headline slot that followed was a tough call. Jupitus self-deprecatingly suggested that he was only there as a buffer to curtail Clarke's prolixity, but having to follow the sheer intensity of preceding sets from 'tap natch' poets (I use the term advisedly) like LKJ, Joolz and Attila the Stockbroker, was always going to be an unfair challenge. That said, this is a generous project and the enthusiastic audience responded warmly and in kind.

Like the 'Talking Liberties' panel discussion a month earlier, this was a fascinating and inspiring gig, and a rare opportunity to connect with a distinctive and influential literary scene long driven underground, but still no less relevant in today's political and social landscape. Being reminded of the political fearlessness of the ranting scene, the confrontational and (mostly) left-ish, anti-sexist and anti-racist stances, the willingness to tackle challenging subject matter and social injustice, and to do so live and in the public sphere, was what made Stand Up and Spit refreshing, empowering even. But there was something else about it that had struck me at the British Library event back in May, and which is a little more subtle, yet also worth noting.

Working as a writer or an artist, particularly in live and/or marginal contexts and art forms, you might well pick up skills along the way; quickly learning to be, in effect, your own producer. The lesson here is that these are skills which are also immediately transferable, and can be turned to the benefit of others. To paraphrase a rapper of the period, the great Daryl Aamaa Nubyahn a.k.a. Brother D: agitate and educate, but don't forget to organise. It is a lesson that is evident in Linton Kwesi Johnson's setting up his own record label, being on that book fair committee or producing Michael Smith's LP. It is there in Gary Bushell's compilations, and in Swells's being inspired by and his vocal support for other writers that went as far as him setting up the Attack! Books project. The ranting scene may well have emerged opportunistically out of the punk ethos and the post-punk and reggae scenes, using zines and the immediacy of performance to create a movement, but this was not 'do it yourself' in the sense of looking after number one. It's DIY, not 'me, me, me'.

Here was, and is, a collective ethos that was forged in the years before then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed there was 'no such thing as society', and which still flies in the face of her belief that everyone should 'look to themselves first'. So ingrained has this idea become that in addition to any overt political message, the ranting scene's underlying commonality, its sense of community, has also never seemed more radical or, perhaps, necessary. It is an ethos that is epitomised here, too, by Tim Wells's whole Stand Up and Spit project, for which he and the many participants are to be congratulated.

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Poet Michael Smith in Anthony Wall's documentary 'Upon Westminster Bridge' (Arena, BBC, 1982), which is being screened at Black Cultural Archives, Thursday 25 June 2015.

A further event in the Stand Up and Spit Series, Crossing Over: The Legacy of Ranting Poetry, A Tribute to Poet Michael Smith - a celebration with live poetry, film and audio, is at Black Cultural Archives, 25 June 2015, 19:00 to 22:30