Saturday 19 August 2017

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "The Sorry History of Fast Food" by Paul Sutton

In her book The Poem and the Journey, Ruth Padel suggests that ‘all poetry is about loss: about being, at the same time, in one place and another you can’t get to, or can’t get back to.’ If this is true – and, like any generalisation, it is debatable – then poetry is always in danger of a nostalgic conservatism, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles to better places, pasts and people which have been lost. Not unlike the Daily Mail, with its constant harking back to a fake version of the 1950s, poetry’s present becomes a poor substitute for some utopian ideal which has been lost – something which perhaps never really existed in the first place. 

Certainly, some contemporary British poetry is susceptible to this kind of nostalgic conservatism and backward-looking political quietism. By contrast, judging by his new pamphlet The Sorry History of Fast Food (Open House Editions, 2017), Paul Sutton’s poetry emphatically is not – even though it too is all about loss. His poetry is angry, politicised, nuanced, paradoxical, and ambivalent about both present and past – and hence about as far from a simplistic Daily Mail nostalgia as it is possible to get. Indeed, Sutton arguably satirises such monolithic nostalgia directly in his poem ‘Jupiter,’ where ‘Holst’s giddy joy,’ which seems to embody ‘pride, history and triumph, / … green English fields – / assurance, love, trust,’ is really ‘only a sound, / pure cadence; / just words.’ Though it inspires ‘old feelings’ in the listener, Gustav Holst’s famous piece of music seems to represent an Englishness, or Britishness which has only ever existed in music and words – an Englishness which has always already been lost.
Beyond the experience of Holst’s music, Sutton’s ‘old feelings’ of loss are much more complex, conflicted. On the one hand, the pamphlet is all about what has been lost through ‘the sorry history of fast food’ in modern Britain: with its urban gentrification, the ‘regeneration of King’s Cross / or even worse Paddington,’ its ‘frozen food,’ and ‘motorway service station[s]’ and their ‘invocation of oblivion,’ it would seem that ‘our true country’ has become ‘pure retail park, B & Q.’ Undoubtedly, this all represents ‘such a loss,’ for Sutton - but, on the other hand, the past itself is no golden age; the past itself is ambivalent, with its ‘coffee … [like] Thames mud,’ shops which had the ‘aroma of an old man’s crotch,’ the ‘rain [that] smelt like bomb damage,’ the ‘Victorian chophouse[s]’ and ‘Elizabethan / “offal and hoof quickbits.”’ In this respect, Sutton’s sense of loss might be termed a ‘dirty nostalgia,’ a harking-back to a past which was ‘loved … all the more for being so bad.’

This dirty nostalgia reaches its apotheosis in the poems ‘My Boy Jack’ and ‘Street Chicken,’ in which the narrators look back to Jack the Ripper, and attempt – nostalgically, as it were – to connect themselves with a frankly horrific past. In their narrators’ attempts to ‘trace [their] … history / through such disasters,’ these poems critique a poetry of loss, expose the dark side of poetic nostalgia. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

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