I don’t know much about Derby. If there’s one place in the world that the West Midlands – where I grew up – likes to pretend doesn’t exist, it’s the East Midlands. Who needs Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and Loughborough when you’ve got Birmingham, Coventry, err… Wolverhampton… Worcester(?)… Hereford? OK, fine, it’s not an opinion based in quantifiable fact, but it’s a classic human thing, isn’t it, to avoid people who most remind you of your own worst qualities. The East Midlands was – and is – similarly post-industrial, similarly boasts a singular, hugely significant, historico-cultural icon (their Robin Hood to our Shakespeare), and similarly has a much lesser regional identity than most other parts of the UK. Yorkshire and Lancashire have their own, ancient, reputations, and together form what is commonly known as “The North”, a grouping that both Scotland, the Lake District and the cities around the Tyne manage to be distinct from, despite being further north. Wales has an identity, Cornwall has an identity, the rest of the West Country has an identity, East Anglia has an identity, the South East has an identity… “What’s the stereotype of someone from Somerset?” is a question you could ask anywhere in the UK and get a similar response. “What’s the stereotype of someone from the Midlands?” would cause a much slower reply, and one that would almost certainly fail to differentiate East from West. We’re the same, us Midlanders, dismissed by the narrative of the North-South divide (which side of it are we on? Kinda like half and half) and our voices are largely absent from most of the country’s divisive cries for devolution. We’re expected to fold in, either north or south, or sit happy in the Midlands knowing our region is one that many of our countryfolk are pretty uncaring about.
Sorry, this is getting out of control. Why did I start the post like this? Because Jamie Thrasivoulou is from Derby, and many of the poems included in The Best of A Bad Situation (Silhouette Press, 2017) are explicitly set there.
Jamie Thrasivoulou is not only a “page poet”, but also a spoken word performer, and many of his texts have both a visceral and rhythmic quality that makes that plain. Eg:
Your confidence was elemental, the ego, brash and temperamental.
Guided by hot-knives, mirrors and double-parked lines of Ching-1
There is a directness to the verse and the language, and Thrasivoulou’s clarity of setting, of locality, is part of that, but perhaps not as significant as his tone. The Best of a Bad Situation offers an unscrupulous (possibly the wrong word) and uncensored look at unglamorous lives.
There is a lot here about petty crime, about intoxication (from booze and other drugs), and also about addiction and drug dealing, the darker ends of that scene. We meet men who have sustained life-changing injuries whilst pissing around, pissed; we meet junkies; we meet men desperate to figure out how to pass Monday morning workplace random drug tests (which sound fucking draconian but they do exist).
Thrasivoulou introduces us to a host and a rafter of desperate people, but often people who are making do with the best options they have. Drug dealers are economists, smart at doing business (“Monsieur Hammond and Madame May could learn a lot from geezers like you – on how to boost the economy”); the junkie shoplifter is resourceful and plans his little thefts, sales and drug pick-ups with a clarity of organisation that many professionals lack (in ‘Hunting Snow in a Blizzard’). There’s a funny conversation where stoners decide that Stephen Hawking can’t possibly be the cleverest man in the world as he has to talk through a computer; there’s another one that wonders whether seagulls prefer the cooked fish they steal from cities or the fresh fish they catch on the seas2.
These poems are often political but rarely subtle, which is to their advantage. These are energetic pieces that do sometimes proselytise, but fuck it, y’know, that’s what language is for. There’s an impassioned piece, ‘Anthem For the Racist White Trash’ about the hypocrisy of English voices railing the “they took our jobs” bullshit when they’re jobs the English refused to do:
They’re here to steal those jobs you pretend to seek
They’re here to steal those jobs that you – wouldn’t wanna do
This, including the titular use of “white trash” is perhaps something that only a poet who is “by trade […] a painter and decorator” can get away with. Were someone in my double-degreed-middle-class-Londoner position to critique the English working class so aggressively, I’d get slapped the fuck down, and rightly so. To critique from within is more relevant, is more honest and is more acceptable. Throughout this collection there are powerful words directed angrily towards the people in power as well as lamentably, dissapointedly, at the ways in which the disenfranchised respond to their lack of control.
There’s some great, angry, stuff about inequality, about the benefits system, about addiction treatments, about council cuts and austerity and it’s all very raw and very real.
It reminded me, often, of the rapper Plan B, but his early stuff, before he was famous and into soul, and definitely not his third album where he tried to return to grittier topics but with a whole “Still Jenny From The Block” kinda inauthenticity to it. I dunno if this comparison is fair, though, because I don’t know that much about the spoken word scene. I’m into paper because I’m deeply socially awkward and a book – like headphones and loud hip-hop – is something to hide behind, both literally and metaphorically. Maybe I should cut this paragraph.
My ignorance aside, Thrasivoulou is an angry young man (if he’s not young he’s got the energy and – in his author pic – the hairline of youth), and The Best of A Bad Situation offers a confrontational and unignoreable cry from the wilds of DE1. There’s a lot of rhyme, a lot of rhythm, a lot of humour and a lot of drug use; but also a lot of pain, a lot of poverty, a lot of addiction, a lot of regret. It’s an enjoyable collection, and the only concern I have refers to the title of the collection. Is it meant to be a simultaneous boast whilst slamming a locale? Is Thrasivoulou The Best and Derby A Bad Situation? Or is it merely a reference to the titular poem within the collection, a moving piece about a man coming to terms with disability? I dunno.
Anyway, it’s angry, pointed, fun. Made me feel years younger reading it. (Not that many, though, I’m “only” 28.)
1. The capital on the “Ching” is not mine. ↩
2. Clearly like in my own childhood West Midlands, the inland seagull is a bizarre, but familiar, sight over in Derby, too. ↩