Anxious Corporals

Anxious Corporals is a celebration of the lost world of the self-educating working-class, from Mr Kipps, Leonard Bast and the Age of Hooper to Workington Man. Taking its title from Arthur Koestler’s idea of the culture-thirsty conscript, Morrison recalls the men and women who once sought ‘self-improvement’ through correspondence courses, adult education, political parties and Pelican paperbacks. It’s an essay in verse about education and class, deference and independence, Reason and Reaction, the victory of shopkeeper values and the defeat of the post-war consensus.

Sample Poems

I

O this period of ectopic proletariat, common people
Misplaced in multiples of patchwork overlaps from cash-
Strapped and poverty-trapped working poor to tip-of-
The-slagheap grasping aspiration – O what hope for red roses
To grow among the thorns of red-top-hypnotised, populist-
Supporting proles, working-class Faragistes, Workington 
'Gammons', purple-rinse reactionaries, blue collar 
Conservatives, proletarian Tories (Old Benjamin Disraeli’s 
‘Angels in Marble’ coming back to haunt us through
Poltergeist psephologists, now Boris's blue collars, his batmen 
Bootscrapers), who mostly think they’re petit-bourgeois –
And thus ‘called upon to hate each other’ as Christopher 
Caudwell minted it in the Misty Thirties, and we still in
The death throes of a culture that started its protracted dying
Way back when – simply because they have mortgages and 
Can afford to run motors (even two or three), or have bought
Their council houses, first steps up the property stepladder
Of Right-To-Buy-To-Let-To-Vet of thirty-plus years of
purely Material acquisition plus receipts but whose up-
thrusting Capital hasn’t been matched by cultural accrual, no 
'trickle-Down' in interests and tastes (for ‘footie’, ‘full
Englishes’, Rusty builders’ tea, imbecilic ‘celebrities’, tabloid 
tittle-tattle, Hols in the Costa del Sol or Costa Brava, 
hangovers in
The Algarve, strictly bottled water while abroad and no 
Fraternising with natives), still robustly un-ambitious, 
Philistinism-tippling, prefer to stick to what they know, 
Uncurious of everything they don’t know, even hostile to it –
Knowledge, that great Unknown; potential for authentic 
Cultivation of talents devastated by the haste to catch up 
Capitalism’s pace of ownership, shop-keeping or buying up 
Properties, carpeted places of commodity-worship deep in
The pillared thickets of self-protective Villadom (hives
Of conventional values, private nativism, perfumed mores) 
Premium-bond-and-mothballed suburbia, fetishist shrines 
With vast flatscreens as altarpieces for faiths in artificial 
Things (aspidistras transplanted by satellite dishes), religions 
Rooted wholly in this world (whose quotidian gods are
Terrible to behold in all their dreadful blandness), and some 
Vague evangelism for self-aggrandizement through gadgets
Of ergonomic advantage, visceral acquisitiveness for all
Things tactile, instantly titillating, spiritual impoverishment 
Through conspicuous consumption of superfluous products
Of built-in obsolescence, human flourishing undernourished,
Forever deferred like cheap credit, higher purchase purgatory, 
Appetites sampled and amplified in surround sound,
Magnified in higher definition with better special effects, 
Spectacle at expense of authenticity, eviscerated of soul, 
Ersatz tsars of idiots’ lanterns (some mutely tormented by
Intrusive thoughts zapped-in by television and advertising), 
Repressed aspirations as to ever properly exploring
Their personalities pickled as specimens in aspic of plastic 
Replication, preserved forever half-formed in formaldehydes
Of commodification, stuffed manikins enthroned in morbidly
Obese armchairs, fat sofas of false satisfaction, trappings
And appliances purely for plasma-display; so social
Anthropologists might diagnose that human personality 
Captive under capitalism has a built-in obsolescence every bit 
As inhibiting as the objects and products onto which 
Advertising copywriters – cropped poets of salesmanship, 
Corporate-sponsored, poetically parasitic – project 
Personalities through anthropomorphising spiel (almost a 
Spell) in order to make them irresistibly pettable to
The consumer population – the cut-price capitalist cult
Of commodity-fetishism; against this travestied backdrop it’s
Easy to forget that mere decades ago the working and lower-
Middle classes comprised armies of aspiring self-improvers, 
Intellectually inquisitive and culturally acquisitive 
Knowledge-hungry thought-guerrillas, unarmed paper armies 
Scavenging for knowledge off-campus from academies, 
Rusticating outside rusting institutions, such demand was 
There for mutual improvement overturning the unintelligent 
Margarine of ‘yellow press’ matter, tabloids’ butter-
Substitutes, ‘Sunny’ Harmsworth’s Daily Mail (inveterate 
Barometer of lower-middle-class Villadom), Tit-Bits, 
Answers, Readers’ Digest; an incipient curiousness 
Outstripping supply of tepid potboilers and self-help 
Pamphlets stamped, borrowed and battered from libraries – 
Incubators for lowbrow dog-end knowledge – by blue collar 
Browsers on lunch breaks, abridged indulgences to grease 
Semi-engaged minds hungry for something unidentified,
Faint tastes half-articulated; cheap pulp in peach prose to help 
The unhappily employed escape themselves in short-sleeved 
Evenings of post-supper sleepiness (‘postprandial’ to more 
Silver-spooned phrasemakers), keep the empty-pocketed 
Temporarily happier in their penury; but their appetites kept 
Ripening and pressing through orange peels of colportage 
Impressed on them to keep them in their places and something 
Had to come and fill up this rupturing gap in the market for 
Self-improvers and autodidacts: step in Pelicans… Joining 
Penguin’s orange millions, Pelican’s insuperable blue spines 
Sprang up in 1937 like spring forget-me-nots, or a bruise
Of bluebells in the cool dark woods of bookshops, non-fiction 
Reinforcements, factual, didactic, erudite reads that came to 
Mobilise ambitious and curious brains above their allotted 
Stations to different altitudes of thought through a belated but 
Timely redistribution of knowledge, each paperback just 
Sixpence, price of a cheap packet of cigarettes – Capstan 
Navy Cut non-filters in blue liveries, Passing Clouds in 
Primrose-pink packets, Army Club ('The Front-Line 
Cigarette' Which ‘steadies the nerves’), or Sweet Caporal – 
all in Elegant oblong boxes; ‘Who would have imagined’, 
founder Allen Lane opined ‘That, even at 6d, there was a 
thirsty Public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on 
Science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astronomy and 
Other equally serious subjects?’ Who indeed? Who would 
Have thought it, who would have bought it? The public did, 
Eagerly! ‘Good Books cheap’ went the Pelican strap-line. 
Lane had both a commercial and democratic eye, what 
Average Joe wouldn’t buy books for self-improvement if so 
Readily available and cheaply priced? Rows on rows of sky 
Blue spines, temptingly Promethean, greeting all and sundry 
In every high street Woolworths, sixpenny spines mutely 
Triumphant amidst ten-a-penny tacky bric-a-brac, plaster 
Ornaments and plastic commodities of built-in obsolescence 
Like so many customers’ hollow occupations – now 
Knowledge, low-hanging knowledge of highbrow 
Blackberries – or rather, blueberries – was affordable for
The ordinary person, the autodidactic proletariat, and lumpen 
Unemployed, no penny-dreadful pulp, no low-hanging fruit
Of knowledge, but superior branches of knowledge, for 
Lane’s Promethean aim was that such knowledge should not 
Be the plum preserve of the privileged but the jam
Of the masses, the ambrosial substitute for the mind
Of the miner, milkman, factory-hand; scholarly manna for
The working man and woman, to help them gradually 
Transcend the limited mental horizons of their predetermined 
Places on the lower bowl-scrapes and spaces of pyramidal 
Capitalism’s economic caste system – bonds of those 
Untouchables spruced with patchouli-oil and honest toil about 
To undo themselves, long-unarticulated talents, untapped 
Aptitudes and intellectual appetites to rupture across pages, 
Ranges of pages, print-archipelagos, insatiable itches for 
Mutual-improvement, pure and simple, mental, intellectual, 
Moral, spiritual, in spite of permanent advertising pitches
Of capitalist society, consumerism’s emphasis on prices at 
Expense of substance, its inauthentic auspices of shops, pubs, Tobacconists, boutiques, those public escapist emporiums
Open for corpses’ pennies to be spent in to dope up spent
Spirits with cheap plastic raptures, Bakelite objects, pills,
Fillips, potions, opiates, consciousness-substitutes, punctuated 
By optional chapels, meeting halls and Labour Clubs – self-
Help portals to replenish empties of entfremdung-wrung 
Souls, pariahs of the species-essence at their own expense, 
Easily manipulated supplicants in the purgatories of 'strip-
Lighting together with imitation chandelier' where 'notice 
After blazing notice winks, glows, or blushes luminously ...', 
Its salesmen and floorwalkers so many sharp-suited high 
Priests of retail, Pharisees of receipts for worshippers of hire 
Purchase and higher purposes 'with their neat ready-made 
Clothing, shiny... shoes, well-creamed hair... ready smiles'...

II

Pelican – so named by serendipity when publisher Allen Lane 
Overheard a man at a bookstall mistakenly ask for ‘one of 
Those Pelican books’ when he meant Penguin of course –
Tipped its first title off the production line in pale blue spine: 
George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to 
Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism – a sixpenny 
Salvation of mankind, to paraphrase its author’s enraptured 
Pitch, though aimed more titularly at the scholarly housewife-
Cum-homebound bluestocking now emancipated from 
Aspirins and thin domestic magazines after years yearning for 
Something illuminating, more revealing and enlightening than 
Glossed gossip, something authentic, similarly stimulating to 
The mind and spirit as swilling tea-leaves was to the formica-
Palmed clairvoyant or the hair-curlered gossipers of well-
Scrubbed doorsteps and tongues of tar soap who talked
Of a ubiquitous ‘They’ who were 'reported to order that out 
Of every ten contraceptive sheaths manufactured, one should 
Be punctured; and 'They' put bromide in servicemen's tea, to 
Reduce the sexual urges', pop a ‘pessary’ in if you can't hold 
With those Dutch caps, and butter wouldn't melt, the price
Of butter etcetera etc... shouldn't smoke so much but she has 
To have a lift of some sort, a fillip, something with a fuming 
Tip so she can fume away, release a gasket, although
The smoke makes her feel like an old crock, too much rouge 
From hours spent at the steaming mangle – the wrought-iron 
Granny Smith-green Norahammars Bruk makes her look 
'Grock-like', a shocker, a Mrs Judy Punch, chin clamped, 
Grotesque, prognathous as a Hapsburg, which Richard 
Hoggart described in his groundbreaking monograph-cum-
Polemic-cum-poem The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of 
Working-Class Life, with Special References to Publications 
And Entertainments (Chatto 1957, went on to become an 
Iconic Pelican by '58): 'The lines on the face of an old 
Working-class woman are... magnificently expressive – 
but ...hard earned... a face with a scaly texture... the lines... 
have Grime in them'; Hoggart staggered into Grand-Guignol:
'The hands are bony claws covered with densely lined skin, 
And again the dirt is well-ingrained...: years of snatched
Washes... in cold water, have caused that. The face has two 
Marked lines of force – from the sides of the nose down to 
The compressed lips; they tell of years of 'calculating''...
Shaw's unapologetically didactic paperback sold surprisingly 
Quick, became a common staple of many households’ 
Bookshelves, planting the tri-band blue-white-blue Pelican 
Livery firmly in its new domestic setting; for Lane smelt
A proletarian appetite for appropriation of broader branches
Of knowledge, ontological grounding in capitalism’s two-
Dimensional hoarding-propped pop-up pretend-world (little 
More than ‘a film set’ to Christopher Isherwood, author
Of the filmic novel Prater Violet), its rented world of spirit-
Puncturing employment and mind-dulling shadow play,
Which smelt faintly of greasepaint and turpentine through
The masking fumes of smog, smoke, damp, petrol, patchouli, 
Mould, rust – halitosis of industry and its pollutants spread 
Rapaciously through over-production amidst under-
Consumption; something had to come and exorcise the sour-
Smelling complacency of the economically emptied Thirties’ 
Rut in thought and inaction that coated that decade like
A mould, the cultural chic of acedic reflection contrasted with 
‘The newspapers’ scintillating confusion of day-to-day
Events’, as Lane wrote; an unlikely paper relief column 
Comprising old hands, such as ex-drapers’ assistant and clerk-
Turned-upcoming polymath and futuristic writer, H.G. Wells, 
The better-heeled though no less idealistic R.H. Tawney –
Author of the tectonic plate-shifting anti-capitalist Twenties 
Treatise, The Acquisitive Society – and Beatrice Webb, came 
To the intellectual rescue, and all those writers, socialists
Of various sorts, slightly fusty but still sharp-minded Fabians 
And far-sighted gradualists, partly due to Pelican’s co-
Founding editor’s staunch socialist politics, the exotically 
Named V.K. Krishna Menon, a vegetarian tea-topping teetotal 
Who knocked back a hundred cups of the warm and wet stuff 
A day, sleeping only two hours per night – a veritable Mad 
Hatter of the publishing trade, and part-throwback to
The Seventeenth Century hermitic pamphleteer-cum-aesthete-
Cum-herbalist-cum-Puritan-cum-aspiring angel, Roger Crab; 
And by no means as gas-mad and raging as that vegetarian 
Teetotal Austrian-born lance corporal of the Bavarian Reserve 
Who won an Iron Cross for bravery and a Black Wound 
Badge for being maimed in the cause of duty, only to go on – 
After failed artistry, long-term unemployment, dosshouses, 
He, bohemian once, flip-flopped through flophouses – to 
Forge a ruthless regime which, among legion abominations, 
Stitched black triangle badges on the striped shirts
Of the unemployed, homeless, mentally ill, disabled and lame,
Then extemporised a European apocalypse…(And I am
The grandson of an anxious corporal of the Buffs who fought 
In North Africa against Rommel's sand-capped Afrika Korps, 
Risked his life to save a wounded officer who in any case 
later Died, all un-witnessed, was captured and kept in a 
Prisoner
Of War camp for four years of the war, tortured for trying to 
Escape several times, bashed over the head with a rifle butt, 
Made to stand out in the snow naked, whose nerves never 
Recovered, demobbed for perceived incapacity, in his 
Declining years, predeceased by my green-ink grandmother, 
Was shocked into Huntington's huis clos in a damp Brighton 
Terrace on Balfour Road he nicknamed ‘Stalag VII-A’, partly 
Affectionately, since during his imprisonment he'd learned 
German as a means of nourishing his mind and keeping 
Himself sane, and had a fascination for things German for
The rest of his life; and I am also the son of anxious corporal 
Whose nerves had been scarred permanently from having 
Almost been burnt to death as a baby after his dressing-gown 
Caught fire accidentally, who, though scholarly, gentle, 
Sensitive, suited for the clergy, joined the Royal Marines at 
Seventeen, beret green as he was green, not on a commission 
For he'd been deemed too lacking in self-confidence to be an 
Officer, in spite of his classical education – so he was thrown 
Into the ranks and waded up to corporal but couldn't 
Accomplish more, then on his return to Civvy Street was 
Recruited by the civil service, spent the next twenty years in 
Administrative work, a desk-bound white-collar corporal)...

Reviews

Alan Morrison’s epic essay in free verse tells the story of the unravelling of the post-war settlement in Britain, with its promise of creating a participatory, educated democracy. It was not to be. Yet Anxious Corporals’ pessimism is belied by Morrison’s protean linguistic energy, and where there is such imaginative energy, as there is in all of Morrison’s work, there is hope for renewal.’

Ken Worpole

What happened to the autodidact impulse of a generation of workers from the 1930s through to the late 1970s? Anxious Corporals is a polemical journey charged with anger for people hungry for culture but denied authentic change. It’s a lament and a paean of praise for cultural betterment as an end in itself. A work of Byronic swagger and Brechtian bitterness.

Alan Price