The People’s Poet: ‘The Collected Verse of Attila the Stockbroker’

Attila has been part of the heart & conscience of British political poetry for two generations.

“‘Heart on My Sleeve’ is a mighty collection which gives the reader some inkling of the range of a brilliant poet who mixes anger, sadness and humour as a call to arms like few others… funny, angry, thought-provoking and genuinely moving in equal parts. It’s the story of a poet with a big heart and a desire to make the world a better place by never giving up.”

Anyone who had a heart, a soul and a brain bought Cherry Red’s sampler album Pillows and Prayers back in the summer of 1982.

The sticker on the top left said ‘Pay No More Than 99p’ in the hope of dissuading unscrupulous vendors from getting their punters to pay over the odds for this, one of the most beloved and fondly remembered albums of ‘my’ generation. I’ve had four vinyl copies of this album over the years: copies one and two were stolen after parties, and copy three was ‘appropriated’ by a particularly belligerent Chelsea-supporting ex-girlfriend as a parting souvenir of our six-week tryst. But the fourth version of the vinyl equivalent of Swamp Castle was purchased in Antwerp for 200 Belgian francs some twenty years ago, and Attila himself would have been proud to know that as we made our way back to Antwerp railway station from the record store that day, we found ourselves in the midst of a full-on cyclists’/environmental protesters’ riot.

Pillows and Prayers contained tracks from a variety of artists on the Cherry Red roster, from those who would go on to fame and fortune (Tracey Thorn), to beloved cult artists such as the Monochrome Set and The Passage), and oddities such as Quentin Crisp’s spoken prose and Attila the Stockbroker’s brilliant live poem A Bang and a Wimpy.

Those same fine folk at Cherry Red have now published a compendium of Attila’s verse and prose under the banner of Heart on My Sleeve (Collected Works 1980-2020), and it’s been an absolute joy reading and re-reading this splendid book over the past week.

John Baines earned his moniker Attila the Stockbroker for his prodigious eating habits (“like Attila the Hun”, apparently) and his brief stint ‘In the City’ as a trainee stockbroker (we all make mistakes); he conflated these soubriquets in 1979 and became the ranting poet that most of us know and love.

Attila has performed thousands of gigs, has been seriously assaulted by right-wing thugs, has survived cancer, and has been part of the heart and conscience of British political poetry for two generations.

Heart on My Sleeve was occasioned by the fortieth anniversary of Attila’s first gig and contains material which tries to explain and make sense of the nightmare that was late 1970s and early 80s Tory Britain. The book takes things right up to the nightmare that is early twenties’ Britain including reactions to Covid (from which the poet suffered) and the new, even more rancid version of the Tories (from which the poet also suffered).

The collection starts with Take Courage (from March 2020), a reflection on ageing, mortality and cancer, and the simple act of just doing your best to fight the good fight until all hope is gone:

And if the battle comes, well, now I’m ready
To take the bastard on with all my might.
And if I lose: you’ll face a brand new future.
Please use my poems and songs to spread some light.

This sets out Attila’s agenda, and what follows is a mighty collection which gives the reader some inkling of the range of a brilliant poet who mixes anger, sadness and humour as a call to arms like few others.

Attila is a political activist and an old punk rocker at heart, but the quotidian foibles of middle age are never far away:

I don’t cashback
I want The Clash back.

(Lost in the Supermarket – in its entirety – 2010)

Some of the initial poems in Heart on My Sleeve examine the poet’s childhood and his relationships with his family. The best ones link the personal with the political to great effect. In Poppy’s Poem (2014), the poet examines his complex relationship with his father, and how we must all strive to escape the shackles of the imposed, corrupt values – and the loaded status quo – of our ‘betters’:

My father Bill, born in Victorian England:
The sixth of January, 1899.
His stock, loyal London. Proletarian doff-cap.
Aged just eighteen, he went to join the line.

And in Never Too Late (for my stepfather, John Stanford) (2009), Attila outlines a sometimes fraught relationship with the man who brought him up following his father’s death. Though the poet was a “stroppy teenager” and resented the man who had usurped his father’s role, he begins to understand the difficulties that his step-dad had faced, and how he’d looked after his mum when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The full realisation of what should have been plain in front of his face comes near the end of John Stanford’s life:

Then came that day in hospital
The end was near, we knew
You told me ‘I do love you, John’
I said ‘I love you too’
You took my hand and squeezed it
Our eyes were filled with tears
The first time that we said
that –
It took thirty seven years.

It’s a simple and moving exchange that’s beautifully rounded off when the poet remembers the earlier fights, but also remembers:

But later we both learned so much
And something new began
And here’s a poem I wrote for you
You decent, gentle man

Sometimes, there’s just great beauty in simplicity. It’s – dare I say it – a lovely poem.My Ninth Birthday (2016) also examines Attila’s rejection of (some of) his family values. He  remembers his grandmother’s words about the expectations of the working class –

It’s not for the likes of us!

when she reads snippets about the royal family from her ‘beloved’ Daily Express. This prompts the young poet to do the opposite of everything she ever tells him. Attila hears ‘that particular servile catchphrase again’ after reading Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Tressell’s book seems to be a political touchstone in Heart on My Sleeve (there are several references throughout), and if you haven’t read it, I’d urge you to do so; and if you’re ever in need of a spiritually uplifting pilgrimage, Robert Tressell’s (pauper’s) grave is located in Liverpool’s Walton Park Cemetery (near to Everton F.C.’s football ground).

Attila says farewell to his mum in the sad, complex and lengthy poem The Long Goodbye and he also acknowledges the impact of the death and legacy of John Peel (one of the champions of Attila’s work) in the prose piece Bottom Feeders:

The first play on the John Peel Show. The stuff of dreams!

Nobody, anywhere in the history of UK popular culture, has done as much for people trying to realise their ambitions and get their words and music across to the world. He did it for me: two sessions, loads of plays. Thanks to him, I got the start which has enabled me to earn my living for forty years doing what I love. He died, tragically, at the height of his powers.

But it’s the direct, in-your-face, political poetry which still has the power to move and shock this reader and fan. Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff is, in many ways, a modern updating of Tressell’s work. In the first episode, plasterer Snowy White (played by actor Chris Darwin – who spoke the eulogy at my father’s funeral) says: “It was easy to be a socialist growin’ up in the sixties”, but ever since, it’s been pretty difficult. Attila writes and preaches about the dangers of a Tory/Establishment controlled media, and of a public brainwashed to ‘look up’ to their ‘betters’, and to regard any sort of questioning of capitalism and nationalism as being ‘unpatriotic’ or just plain wrong. This message is briskly dealt with in 2019’s wonderful A Diet of Mainstream Media:

‘Burnt toast gives you cancer.
White bread does the same.
So do chips and bacon –
Corbyn is to blame.’
Turkeys vote for Christmas
When told to by the press.
That’s why this fucking country
Is in such a fucking mess.

The fires of righteous indignation have always been burning in Attila the Stockbroker’s poetry. It’s not just the Establishment who is to blame. Attila always feels that the citizens of this country have a duty to react against the lies and division-seeking policies and practices which turn one person against another. Many of these poems are collected in the Little England section of the book, where Daily Mail readers and other dupes froth at the mouth at the thought of the tide of immigration coming to swamp them in their Little England homes. In Asylum-Seeking Daleks, the benefits-seeking inhabitants of Skaro come for our jobs:

Asylum-Seeking Daleks
Are landing here at noon!
Why can’t we simply send them back
Or stick them on the moon?

2016’s Take Back Control (for Ronnie Chambers in Hartlepool) is one of many poems looking at the how Brexit-scheming politicians exploited xenophobia for political gain, whilst pointing out that Wilfred Owen’s old lie, has simply mutated for a new and equally dumbass generation, and also predicts the rise of the Conservative ‘red wall’ gains of 2019:

But it wasn’t the EU who shut your pit down
Or sent Met thugs rampaging through your street.
It didn’t close your hospitals and workshops
Smash down your union to brave defeat.

Poison Pensioner reminds me of the Special AKA’s Racist Friend. It’s a call to arms to rid yourself of family relationships when the relative in question is a racist:

I’ve tried to work it out, but I just can’t see
How a cretin like you is related to me

And he continues in this vein right up to the final verse where he sees his ageing relative (I presume) as the embodiment of this nation’s crippling disease – racism:

Bossy yet servile, some combination!
Paralysed spine of a lickspittle nation

And this theme is further explored in (the even better) Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation (Who?) (a reggae takeover piece, inspired by Roger Daltrey’s ‘thoughts’ on Brexit).

It’s a poem about many things, but it reminds me of the shame I feel when lumped in with the gammony bastards who have ruined the chances of so many young people with their selfish Brexit vote (reminder to self – next tattoo: EU flag with ‘It wasn’t me, matey!’ inscribed both above and below), and also about how your heroes are just one sentence away from being your enemies. If there’s one thing (and it’s only one thing, believe me) that I’ll give myself credit for it’s that I’ve always hated The Who – from their angry credit card bungling lead guitarist to their homophobic, God Bless Our Boys, armed-robber hero-worshipping lead singer whose right-wing bullshit inspired Attila’s ferocious rant about how ‘his’ generation:

Slowly losing their love for humanity
I’m alright jack selfish inanity
Some in church claim Christianity
Jesus Christ would call insanity

The poet also says:

I’m ashamed of my generation
Obsessed with immigration

The poem ends with plea to everyone to ‘call out; your relatives when they ‘spout tat’ and espouse racism or right wing propaganda, but (sadly) doesn’t – like Mr Dammers’ song – entreat you tell those same relatives and friends to fuck off – forever – if they continue to do so.

Blood isn’t thicker than water. Or shouldn’t be.

Elsewhere Attila details the murder of a London teenager for “speaking French” in front of some good old London bully boys in Language Barrier (1992) and captures the rancid zeitgeist of 1982 in Contributory Negligence, which was inspired by the words of High Court judge Bertrand Richards who said that a 17-year-old female hitchhiker who was raped by the motorist who gave her a lift from a dance hall was ‘in the truest sense, asking for it’, and let the rapist off with a fine.

Some of us believed that such vileness of word and deed had slowly been on its way to eradication, but – as many of us are sick of pointing out – Brexit and an 80+ Tory majority have emboldened every maggot to come crawling from the fetid carcass of a zombified yesteryear.

Some of the poetry in this collection has aged. Obviously. The British Gas Tell Sid campaign, the near-extinction of the poet’s beloved Brighton and Hove Albion FC and some of the Nigel (a metonym for basic shiteyness) poems seem to be mere curiosities, but it’s good to be reminded of long-gone, former big names like John Selwyn-Gummer, if only to be reminded of what complete and utter c*nts they were.

Attila pokes gentle fun at poet Roger McGough for accepting an O.B.E., but many of Attila’s more whimsical poems (Spam, Axalotl, Braintree) are reminiscent of the gentle Merseysider, and when I read the poet’s New Brighton (a poem occasioned by the poet’s delight in discovering the existence of an, er, ‘New’ version of his home town, only to find out that there was No beer, no life, no anything!) I thought ‘You cheeky bastard – I Iove New Brighton!’

Although it is a bit shit.

If I were asked to name my two favourite Attila poems, though, I’d have to say it’s two of the eulogies: Veronica and Two Cans Of Zywiek.

The former poem outlines the poet’s love for his recently-deceased friend, and his growing anger at a Catholic priest’s insincerity and bullshit at her funeral. The priest sees the huge attendance at the mass as “the big one” and “maybe just a chance to show off” and talks about himself, calls Veronica ‘Pat’ and says that Veronica has “gone to a better place”:

My nails dug into my palms
I wanted to stand up and scream
‘You charlatan! You fraud! You hypocrite!’
This warm lovely woman – mother, friend, lover –
is dead.
Gone forever.
In a few minutes her remains will be burned.
We’ll never see her again.
She no longer exists.

He thinks all of these things and more, but doesn’t say them. How could he? But Humanism triumphs over superstition and the poet sees how Veronica lives on in her words and deeds and her ‘sterling genes’- which have been passed on through her children.

And death ends with both a bang and a whimper as finality is reached on that sad day:

The door clanged shut.
We drove away from her home for the last time.
Joy looked back once and quietly said
‘Goodbye, Veronica’.
That was all.

Two Cans of Zywiec (2017) is a eulogy for Trevor Passmore, the farmer who allowed Attila and friends to host Glastonwick – a poetry, beer and music festival – for 25 years. The poet says:

We came from two worlds and we met in the middle

and the poem briefly and succinctly maps out the two men’s mutual love and friendship until both are diagnosed with cancer – and the paradoxically nightmarish diagnosis that John is “the lucky one”.

I love the simplicity, beauty and unfussiness of the final images:

Now we loved real ale, but you always liked Zywiec.
The town and the people there, not just the beer.
When I came to see you on that final visit
As I cycled over, I got an idea.
I went to an office, bought two cans of Zyviec.
I got there just ten minutes after you’d gone.
They’ll stand on your bar as a tribute this Glastonwick.
There in your memory. Life carries on.

Heart on My Sleeve is tremendous; it’s funny, angry, thought-provoking and genuinely moving in equal parts. It’s the story of a poet with a big heart and a desire to make the world a better place by never giving up. The polemical poems mix easily with those poems which celebrate the joy and silliness of life (and as the parents of Joe – the world’s most fastidious teenager – we really appreciated the sheer disgustingness of Joseph Porter’s Sleeping Bag) and even if you’ve never considered buying a book of poetry in your life, Heart on My Sleeve would be a great place to start.

‘Heart On My Sleeve Collected Works 1980-2020’ by Attila The Stockbroker is published 9 April 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £13.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He will be appearing at Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle and Sound City festivals later in 2021.

Header photo: Kevin Winiker Photos © Image may be subject to copyright.

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