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.
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'...
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)...
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘It’s hard to imagine this polemical, poetic history of working-class culture with anything other than Smokestack’s signature red spine.’
Paul McDonald, London Grip
‘Splendid, tub-thumping stuff, and all true. Definitely worth a read.’
Write Out Loud
Steve Spence, Litter