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Spoken Word Review: Austerity Cafe

23 May 16 words: Alan Dawson
"In Britain, we don't dig coal from mines any more. We used to build ships, but no longer on these shores. We can be proud of our bankers who generate millions, and we're still good at making guns!"
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image: Mace Maclean

Anyone born after 1970 will probably not understand the ‘edginess’ of youth politics during the early years of Thatcherism. Emerging from the punk phase, it began to express the disenchantment that British youth felt about life in Britain. This period continued into the 1980’s with the collaboration of left wing musicians getting their message across in their music; known by the term Red Wedge. We also saw the rise of alternative comedy, bringing Alexei Sayle and his political rants to mainstream television. Sayle’s Liverpool accent would add to the political edginess of his socialist eastern European background.

Eastern European socialism also influenced one of the main players in the Red Wedge movement. Billy Bragg’s third album in 1986 took the title of a 1926 poem by Vladimir Mayakowsky; Talking with the Taxman about Poetry. Mayakowsky was part of the Bolshevik movement in Russia prior to the revolution. His family origins were from the Cossack area in the Ukraine.

Austerity Café is branded as “an experimental fusion of political satire, fractured melodies and home-grown verse, serving up bite-sized chunks of the UK socio-political pie”

Performed by local writer and poet Andy Szpuk who coincidently is also from a Ukrainian background. Andy’s writing (and the aggressiveness of his delivery on stage) certainly brought back memories of Alexei Sayle, the lyrics of songs in the Red Wedge period, and the ‘fractured melodies’ of Billy Bragg’s earlier stuff.

A recent article (in the Guardian) observed that “stand-up is an egalitarian profession: it excludes the timorous but otherwise beckons to an open mic anyone who thinks they are funny enough. Careers can emerge from nowhere, with no expensive overheads, parental support systems or elite education required”.

The style of performance at Austerity Café would fit this statement too!

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image: Mace Maclean

Austerity Café was a series of satirical pieces performed by Andy, as characters with a story to tell.

Yannis (the café owner) introduced things and then handed over to some of his ‘customers’, who air their own views. All set within the current climate of financial austerity and the restrictions it brings on society.

Yannis told us about the money men in their fancy cars, observing that:
“Sometimes they have difficult decisions to make
Maybe it’s easier for them when they’re full of my finest steak.”

Phil the delivery driver, showed his antipathy towards the political powers by comparing them to a  horse race:
“A gunshot signals the start of the race / Propaganda gallops into first place
A thoroughbred reared on a diet of deception / Carefully constructed lies, a cunning     conception”

Karl the activist, bemoaned the loss of mining and ship-building but ‘praises’ the arms industry! He tell us with acerbic wit that:
“In Britain, we don’t dig coal from mines any more
We used to build ships, but no longer on these shores
We can be proud of our bankers who generate millions
And we’re still good at making guns!”

George is a banker and unlike the others, probably had eaten one of the steaks in the café. He proclaimed in ‘Cutting the Welfare State’:
“Broken Britain breeds benefit culture / Human rights are the nation’s curse
But it’s okay people, put away your despair / We’re taking care of the public purse”.

The performance of Austerity Café was a free gig at the wonderful venue of the café at Nottingham Contemporary. Music was also provided by musician, writer and social historian Burnt Paw and Stacey McMullen brought his modern lyrics to nostalgic musical styles including flamenco, Irish folk and blues.

There was a good and varied crowd too. Many of those there probably did not realise that the location of the Austerity café was on the site of the Thurland Street Railway Tunnel, long since gone which took trains for 60 years into Victoria Station. Activist Karl may well have a view on that too!

Andy Szpuk performed Austerity Café at Nottingham Contemporary on Saturday 21 May.