Introduction to 50 sonnets for liberals in troubled times

2016 was a shocker. Watching the vile rabble-rousing debates about Brexit was repugnant, the morning of the loss, grief-inducing. At that moment I, like many other optimistically outward-looking friends who understand how co-operation in Europe has given us peace and prosperity for 70 years went into black, horrified grief and shock. Was the country really so stupid as this? So intolerant and unkind? The fire-bombings of immigrant shops and racist attacks on the streets that ensued seemed to answer that question.

And then there was the rise of Donald Trump. After his win we got to hear Nigel Farage crowing, the pair of them getting it on like the far right Anglosphere’s own psychotic Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dummer. At the same time, the rise of other far right extremists across Europe was depressing. Their presence was one of my main reasons for wanting to stay in the EU – because to leave was to launch the whole continent in the direction of the same far right savagery that had torn the continent to pieces only 70 years before.

What surprised me about the rise of the right this time was how little people seemed to have learned from the 1930s – not such distant history. It’s almost an algorithm. You get the very rich making everyone else poorer through malpractice and deception, and the poor will listen to anyone who can name a semi-plausible scapegoat, because they don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that those rich industrialists and venture capitalists whose success they admire are making their lives worse. When an abuse is so extreme even the right wing Press object to it, such as Phillip Green’s disdainful mistreatment of workers at BHS, or Sports Direct putting people to work in Victorian condition, then this is seen as exceptional, not an indicator of the attitude to the poor of many in business. No. That would smack of socialism. And that’s evil.

So, who to blame? Last time round it was Jews. This time round, it was the EU. As I trawled the deeper recesses of the internet, it also became clear “the EU” was code used by many far right fascists to mean “Jews” once again. Some videos I watched argued the whole EU project had been designed as part of a Jewish conspiracy to eradicate the “white race” – whatever those two words are supposed to point to.

For most people besieged by the lies of the Brexit campaign, their conscious thoughts were a long way from fascism. In the last eight years, they’d become generally poorer, felt they weren’t getting on, were unable to buy a house and had to rent, their wages had stagnated, and the waiting lists at hospitals had lengthened Pinocchio-like as Osborne and Cameron lied that “we’re all in this together”.

The British experience of poverty in the 21st Century is for many a pale shadow of the poverty we had in the 1930s. Not for everyone, though. There are people going to food banks to stop themselves starving, living in slum homes without central heating, the plaster coming off the walls. But most people complaining about the EU weren’t suffering that sort of hardship. Instead, they were aware that they weren’t getting on how they thought they would. There are more billionaires in Britain than ever, but the majority struggled on under the yolk of austerity that Cameron and Osborne cooked up as a pretext to run down the Welfare State and sell it to their friends in private business. If ever you want a demonstration of how poverty is relative, then look at Britain’s squeezed middle. If ever there were an argument for redistribution of wealth from rich to poor to keep social stability (not poor to rich as is happening in the US and UK at the moment), Brexit is it.

Nevertheless, many people sought somebody to blame for their hardship (perceived or real) and that somebody was “Europeans”.

Blame was piled on foreigners by papers like the Daily Mail (are there any papers like it? It’s in a class of misery-making all its own), that putrid organ of vile hatred and lies deemed so unreliable not even Wikipedia will cite its “news”. Aiding and abetting were The Sun and The Times. No surprise these great factories of hatred wanted out. Murdoch’s influence has never been great in Europe. Best to divide the UK from the mainland to bolster his private fiefdom.

In the meantime, the amnesiac people of Britain forgot what a united Europe had achieved post-war. Apart from the peace, it had continuously improved lives, cleaned the environment and heightened people’s chances in general. It had developed problems – largely resulting from the neo-liberalism (that economic tool misused by right-wingers) foisted on Europe by Thatcher and Major in the ’90s. But this was not stated in the Press, only stories of straight bananas, of which there was never one in sight, because that was another tabloid lie.

The British had chosen to forget that European co-operation had brought us peace, and that’s because as a country we’ve never got beyond fetishising the bloody and savage total warfare of World War II. Despite the fact that back then Britain had an Empire of subjects to draw on for our part in the war, while Russia and America also did much of the heavy lifting, still many yearned for Britain’s mythical “finest hour”. That was great Battle of Britain rhetoric, but those words having become an emblem for the whole war, by the 21st Century they were well past their “use by” date.

No matter, the British continued to pour it on their fish and chips, poisoning themselves in the process. Thus, the British continue to live with archetypes of Germans as enemies, despite our supreme monarch (God bless ‘er) being one of those untrustworthy foreign immigrants.

At the same time, there are new threats to Europe. Putin is one, alongside his poodle, Trump. That Putin has ordered 1500 T14 tanks – a weapon that outguns, outmanoeuvres and outclasses anything we have in the West, is telling. If you regard the Crimea as his Sudetenland, then expect to see agitation in the Baltic states and Poland, soon…

The woes go on. Such unhappy thoughts troubled me for months. My outrage at the stupidity of two formerly savvy nations, Britain and the US, in falling for nationalist lies meant I was (and, actually, still am) unable to hold a rational discussion with a Brexiter or a Trump supporter. I’ve said about six words to my neighbours since the disaster of Brexit.

This rage had to go somewhere. Two months ago I started obsessively putting down thoughts in sonnet form. The sonnet is great. With the Shakespearean variant, you’ve got 14 lines to play with, comprising three quatrains (four lines of alternating rhymes) plus a rhyming couplet at the end – and that’s it.

An outlet at last. The unending cycle of rage I felt could be contained. Thinking about the subjects of the sonnets helped me to begin exploring why some people had voted for Trump or Brexit, and get a sense of how it happened.

But let’s be honest, that’s not the reason I wrote these poems. It’s not all nicey, nicey liberal “let’s understand the fascist people that are ruining the world and give them a big forgiving huggy wuggy” stuff. No, these sonnets are a means to channel my anger so it stops devouring me.

I wrote 50 sonnets in about two months. Some days they poured out of me. I’ll be honest, there are some good ones, some excellent, some a bit clunky. Are they “great” literature? Nah. But they have helped me get this horror into some perspective and reaffirmed my core beliefs. Right wingers will hate them, of course. But then, who cares? This is for people who hope for a better world through co-operation, not through owning guns and believing that all our woes are manufactured in China or Syria, or thinking that Christ would have wanted the Samaritan to walk by on the other side.

It’s cleared my head a bit. I hope it does the same for you.

Matt Wingett 31st March, 2017.

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