Thursday, 26 March 2020

Surge by Jay Bernard

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 2004, just as I was working on a book that revolved around events in Coventry and London in the first half of 1981, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire opened. One of the firms of lawyers representing families of some of the deceased posted transcripts every night of the day’s proceedings, and it became routine for me to come home from work, sit down at the computer, and read that day’s testimony. Bit by bit I absorbed the horror of the events of that night in January 1981, which led to the deaths of thirteen youngsters who had been attending a birthday party.

Jay Bernard’s research into those events was carried out another fifteen years later, at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Their poems reference original source documents “noted, dated, numbered, placed in acid-free Japanese boxes and lovingly (as is tradition) laid without a casket”. Yet some of the voices are achingly familiar. My breath caught in my throat as one of the poems (Clearing) recalled how a key found in a pocket was used as the only way to identify one of the victims – a never-forgotten fragment of a parent’s testimony to the coroner’s court.

Despite how well I thought I knew those events and their aftermath - especially the almost total lack of action or even empathy on behalf of the authorities – I had missed how close the parallels were with what happened with Grenfell Tower in 2017. But the latter part of Bernard’s collection makes those connections only too clear. Another line that made me gasp – bringing together in just five words, two ends of a long history – was from the poem Sentence, which ends: “Not rivers, towers of blood.”

An immensely powerful collection of poems that evokes events seared onto Black British consciousness, while making it abundantly clear why they should never be forgotten and how little has changes in the intervening forty years.

Finally, I must mention the cover design by Lily Jones. Its swirling black and white lines evoke both the smoke from a fire and the twisting lines of paint in Edvard Munch’s The Scream

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roy McFarlane

Avoid If You Dislike: Mixing poetry and politics

Perfect Accompaniment: A visit to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here

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