INGLAN IS A BITCH -
LINTON KWESI JOHNSON
Linton Kwesi Johnson was really popular at one point during the early 1980s. Not as in mainstream culture popular but in the way he crossed over with his art to a large white audience. He was a poet, reciting his poems in Jamaican patois over reggae rhythms supplied by Dennis Bovell and his house band. The music was really good and Linton's voice beautiful but what clinched it was the subject matter. Linton Kwesi Johnson was political and militant and as this was the first years of Thatcherism when such things as police racism went unchecked, he captured life in black Britain perfectly.
Inglan Is A Bitch is a collection of Linton's poems taken from his Forces Of Victory LP period. Written in phonetic patois, it includes what might be his most well-known poem, Sonny's Lettah; written in the form of a letter to his mother from a black youth incarcerated in Brixton Prison on the charge of murdering a police officer. In highlighting police prejudice and the injustice and misuse of the SUS law of old it is brilliant, and in an extremely dignified manner conveys a powerful sentiment.
A good poem should work when both read and heard, and Sonny's Lettah (as does all other LKJ poems) does this and more. When read, it comes alive from the page, carrying the reader along on a narrative that defiantly punches out at the reader's mindset. When heard with Dennis Bovell's dub reggae rhythms, the words grab, hold and force the listener to pay attention; eradicating any barrier to understanding that the patois might cause. When the music drops out as it does in Sonny's Lettah and Linton's words step in to fill the silence it's like underscoring; accentuating and adding gravitas.
In reading these poems in 2016, it's interesting to see how they now stand up. The SUS law has now been repealed (though there are still stop and search laws in place) but this hasn't led to Sonny's Lettah being any less powerful.
Linton's class consciousness has stood the test of time and his observations of such things as 'di black petty-booshwah' stand now as being very prescient: "Dem wi' side wid oppressah w'en di goin' get ruff, side wid aggressah w'en di goin' get tuff."
Independent Intavenshan is of particular interest because it shows that Linton was right all along: "Wat a cheek dem t'ink wi meek, an' wi can't speak up fi wi self. Wat a cheek dem t'ink wi weak, an' wi can't stan up pan wi feet."
In the same poem he goes on to state that only 'we' - as in the black British working class but applicable to anyone, really - can set ourselves free and that no-one else can do it for us. Not the SWP, the IMG, the Communist Party ("dem too awty-fawty"), Labourites ("dem naw goh fite wi rites"), the CRE, the TUC, the Liberals or the Tory Party ("a noh fi wi pawty").
At the back of the book a glossary has been added explaining the meaning of the acronyms because who nowadays knows what the IMG or the CRE is, or even the SWP come to that? And indeed, where are they all now? What the poem tells us is that if faith had been put in any of these political groups, including Labour and the Tories, then where would it have led? That's right: Nowhere.
Linton Kwesi was/is not only a brilliant poet but also nothing less than a visionary.
Reading Inglan Is A Bitch led me to think of DJ Derek who having been missing for some time now has recently been pronounced dead. He'd been missing for eight months until a body was found in woods, in north Bristol. I think we all knew it was going to be Derek and DNA tests confirmed it to be so.
Derek used to DJ in one of the best pubs in the world - The Plough, in Easton, in Bristol - and there we'd all be night after night, plotting our plots, scheming our schemes and dreaming our dreams; maybe sometimes getting a little drunk, with Derek supplying the soundtrack. I remember there was a song he used to play a lot which I really liked and one night I asked him what it was: Under The Sycamore Tree by Lady Saw. So I told him I really liked it and he just nodded like a wise old sage and without me even asking him, played it again.
Any time I saw him I'd say "Yo! DJ!" in deadpan imitation of a ghetto gangster, which I plainly wasn't, and he'd just smile back and say "Yeah, mon," in his heavy patois brogue. He came up to me one night and said "Easy now, mon, and mop it up aftah," and it baffled me for weeks because I didn't have a clue to what he was referring to.
I can't ever recall him playing anything by Linton Kwesi Johnson and I don't know what Derek thought of him. In fact, in hindsight, it's apparent now that Derek was a very private person. I don't know if he smoked reefer or what his politics were, or anything. I do know, however, that he was a superstar but at the time I thought nothing of it. He was just DJ Derek, one of the best DJs ever doing his thing in the corner of one of the best pubs in the world.