As with her previous poetry collection, Lydia Towsey’s second book, The English Disease, is full of poems which are musical, lyrical, performative, but which also jump off the page into the ears and mouth of the reader: poems, that is, which work equally out loud or ‘in-loud’ – heard via silently-moving lips in the mind’s-ear of the reader.
In these poems, the reader hears of modern England’s diseases and their symptoms – as well as possible cures, some which help, some of which make them worse: ‘There must be a shot. / There must be a cure // for the English disease, the English disease.’ Towsey asks diseased England to ‘write back’ to her, so she, like a poet-doctor, can diagnose what is wrong – and what might be right, too. Among the militant nationalists, the ‘men in monocles abusing privilege,’ the ‘treatments / elections and referendums,’ the war-mongering, the failed primeministers, the arms sales, the xenophobia, she traces a counter-narrative, a counter-culture, a half-obscured English tradition of resistance, hospitality, rebellion, subversive humour, courtesy, a ‘decency of queues.’ This is a crypto-Socialist England, not unlike that imagined by George Orwell in his great essay The Lion and the Unicorn, which needs to ‘remember the speeches’:
We shall welcome them on the beaches.
We shall welcome them on landing grounds.
We shall welcome them in the felds and in the streets.
We shall welcome in the hills.
I remember Monty Python,
I remember Bowie,
I remember Boudicca,
I remember Bevan.
Politics, though, is not all speeches and heroes, not all Boudiccas and Bevans and Guy Fawkeses. It does not only happen on a national scale. It is also a uniquely personal force, as universal as gravity, which operates between people in queues, friends sharing cups of tea. And Towsey’s poetry beautifully captures moments of connection between the political and the personal, the macrocosmic and microcosmic. It stands with Jung, when he declares that ‘the psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation.’ In Towsey’s poetry, family history, parenthood, eating disorders, tea drinking, queuing, politeness and its opposite all reflect the psychology of contemporary England – a psychology which intermingles all these things with a traumatic history ‘built on broken bones / returning boats to burning homes.’
Still, if this national history is reflected in individual actions and, indeed, individual poems, it can also be distorted, refracted, resisted – through utopian moments of friendship, through twisted nursery rhymes, reconceived myths, and a new language that Towsey calls ‘Zomblish.’ Towsey’s are visionary poems which reflect national psychological states, and then go on to shatter them, in order to piece together new, better ones – of ‘Donald Trump saying sorry. / Fiscal reform to favour the many. / My daughter sleeping through the night.’ A better England – a better world – is possible, and Towsey’s poems hold out that hope:
Build me a picket fence,
form me a queue.
Shall we sit for days on end
and talk as weather beats on tents?
The light that sets on the British Empire
points from yesterday to a new tomorrow.
This land might grow a new beginning.
This generation must find a way.
There must be a salve.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.