“Surge” Jay Bernard
Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9781784742614, 58pp, £10)
Jay Bernard was writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute based in New Cross, London, which houses an archive dedicated to black history in the UK, during 2016. The archive contains papers relating to the New Cross Fire in 1981, where 13 young black people died in a house fire during Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday party. The fire was believed to be started deliberately as a racist attack – initial reports stated an incendiary device was found under a window. Jay Bernard describes finding the New Cross Fire archive in “Ark”,
“I take this January morning in my hands and wonder
if it should go under London, England, Britain, British, Black-British –
where to put the burning house, the child made ash, the brick in the back
of the neck, the shit in the letter box and piss up the side of it?
I file it under fire, corpus, body, house.”
Although the New Cross Fire is still in living memory, Jay Bernard is seeking to introduce it to a new generation, to make history live and remind readers these are both statistics and people. It’s the people that make it difficult just to put the papers in an archive and let them gather dust. Ending on the word “house”, rather than “body” draws attention to the fact the fire started somewhere we should feel safe.
“Songbook” is after Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “New Crass Massakah” (1981):
“Gyal fall back inside an we no see her no more
No bright green dress up pon di third floor
Police man come an fireman too
Dem startle dem scared an no know wha fi do
Mudda she ah cry an she nah have no shoes
Man dem ah look but to help dem refuse
Fren dem shock by di scale ah di loss
Black smoke ah billow down there in New Cross”
The simple rhymes and bounce rhythm give this a feel of a ballad, a story-telling poem with mnemonics for the performer. It pushes readers/listeners in to the role of witnesses, communicating the helplessness those witnessing the original fire felt in the panicked aftermath. A poem given the minus sign as a title, “-“, also focuses on the aftermath,
“and they wrapped me in a blanket and drove me here – and I was lying there waiting for you, dad – across the table, there were bodies, dad – Twisted dad – no heads – like screaming branches of a tree, dad – loads of them, loads of them, I swear – and I heard them say – they were saying –
And then you came and I was calling out to you, dad – and I know you heard me because here we are, dad – come back – don’t bury me – I can’t stand it – I can barely stand it when the lights go off – and I’m here – and spend the whole night listening for you dad – I want to crawl between mum and you – in your bed, in your sheets, dad – that’s the only kind of burying I want –“
An imagined monologue from one of the victims. The repetition of “dad” a refrain to underline that the victims were children and scared enough for a teenager to admit to wanting their parents’ comfort. An excerpt from BBC Newsnight 12 July 2017 is included without annotation,
“James O’Brien: Do you understand why the authorities have not been able to confirm that definitely to you?
Nazanin Aklani: Yes, because they let them burn for so long. You know, James, what’s more horrendous than getting burned alive? You know, you ask yourself is there anything worse? And I’m afraid there is, you know. Having no remains.”
The poems “Surge” aren’t just about the New Cross Fire. Once celebrates John La Rose, poet, activist and founder of New Beacon Books, the first Caribbean publishing house and bookshop in the UK. Some explore teenage sexual awakening and London’s Pride march. Parallels are drawn between the New Cross Fire and Grenfell, the tower block fire in 2017 where the official death toll was 72. One of those deaths was of the artist Khadjia Saye in “Sentence”
“the people have taken their hands away from their eyes / and have stapled their mothers and sisters to the underpass wall / their cousins and brothers and lovers to the underpass wall / only the missing – never the dead – to the underpass wall.
Not rivers, towers of blood.”
The final line is a reference to British MP Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech made in April 1968. “Flowers” could be the aftermath to either fire,
“Will anybody speak of this
the fire we beheld
the garlands at the gate,
the way the flowers do?”
“Surge” tells a story, drawing parallels between past and present, showing how lessons have not been learnt. Each poem has a different voice so the collection feels like a gathering of voices given space to tell their own stories. Each story adds to the whole and builds towards a collective narrative, giving the poems a vividness and urgency.