Writing on the Wall – Linton Kwesi Johnson at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool


Just over a year ago, Louise Casey was appointed to what must be a daunting and thankless task – addressing and ‘rooting out’ misogyny and lax standards endemic to the Metropolitan Police. Unlike many previous inquiries into institutional prejudice, this one looks set to report within a reasonable time-frame. However, what the report is expected to reveal is far from reasonable: the Met has effectively approved of vile behaviour from its own officers, allowing misogynists, abusers and racists to continue working for the force unchecked.

Well, I say the report will ‘reveal’ this; but it must surely come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. These and other issues are not anomalies; they are rooted deep within the Met’s DNA.

Of those who have been paying close attention to – and resisting – such social ills in this country, few can have been as vocal or as influential as the poet, Reggae musician and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson.

I’d long been familiar with the name, but his work came into sharp focus for me whilst directing Barrie Keefe’s incendiary play Sus, which deals with police racism in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, and the fact that black people could be arrested merely on ‘suspicion’ of having committed an unnamed crime. I was by chance chatting about the project with Tayo Aluko (another great black musician, writer and activist), when he pointed out Johnson had written an incredibly powerful poem on the very subject, entitled Sonny’s Lettah. Even four decades later, whether set to music (as I first heard it), or read out loud by the poet himself (as it is tonight), it retains every bit of its potency, and remains sadly as relevant as ever.

This is his first choice as he reads from the latest edition of his collected poems, a book he is proud to say has been in print for the last twenty years. Here again, he is breaking down barriers: not only is he just the second poet to have his works anthologised in the famous Penguin Modern Classics imprint whilst still alive, he remains the sole black poet on that roster.

Now aged seventy, and following something of a hiatus, his writing is as sharply-observed, powerful and relevant as it has always been. If this anthology is already in your collection, I’d still say the updated edition is worth purchasing, if the poems he reads out about his mother and about lockdown are indicative of the quality of the recently-added new material.

Writing on the Wall’s Madeline Heneghan had already done a sterling job of interviewing Johnson, allowing her well-structured questions to act as prompts for his clear and fascinating recollections of his own history and the wider context of the ongoing struggle of black people in the (somewhat ironically named) United Kingdom. I find myself hoping the event has been recorded, not least so that I can look up some of the many important works and personalities he talks about.

It is also heartening to hear that, despite obvious conflict, he sees that the route to further gains lies not in focussing purely on issues affecting back people, but in recognising the common ground that struggle has with the struggles of the white working class. 

No history of the black struggle in this country would be complete without mentioning Linton Kwesi Johnson, though he wears this fact very lightly. Who else has managed to articulate history so precisely, so movingly – not with hindsight, but capturing that history even as it is being made? What valid comparators are there? Paul Robeson? Nina Simone? Mohammed Ali? 

If those comparisons seem fanciful, you either haven’t heard Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work; or, if you have heard it, you haven’t really listened. The very fact that the phrase ‘influential poet’ seems to be an oxymoron reveals just how unique he is, and just how much his work should be celebrated.

Who else, when talking about the impact he and his comrades have had, can not only say ‘We changed Great Britain; we changed the country’, but can make this simple statement of fact without any apparent ego?

He is, quite simply, The Don.

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