Brand New Ancients. Even the title gets you right in the gut! Because didn’t you know we’re all mythical, people? Forever trapped ‘somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful’! Damn straight Kate! Nobody puts it better. Epic is a word bandied around often to describe Kate Tempest’s performance poetry, and yes, I’ve got to concur. Kate’s work is so bloody grand in its scope that it now makes perfect sense to me that she describes herself, not as a poet, but as a human rights activist, on that good old Book of Face.
So there it is, I’ve made my point. Brand New Ancients is more than just a legendary tale. It is myth made modern and radical compassion in action (if that sounds dubious, just go see for yourself. It needs to be seen, felt and experienced – the words on the page don’t offer the same engagement of senses). This is a tale of the everyday epic, spanning generations of interconnecting lives. In Brand New Ancients, fate, choice and circumstance intertwine, and only one certainty remains; who are we to say what another man or woman might rise or fall to in a lifetime? This poem/show/masterpiece won Kate the prestigious Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry, and rightly so. Stuff like this is rare; we might all be gods in our own little lives, but we haven’t all got the ability to see it or say it quite like she does.
Beginning with a welcoming intro focused loosely on the act of radical compassion, Kate was natural and real from the start. This intro was important. It made sure that it wasn’t only her up there on the stage and us sat in the dark listening. Instead, the whole room was with her, taking part in something rather than just passively ingesting entertainment (which is basically what mainstream society teaches us to do.) So if the picture Kate paints with her poems is slightly soiled, that’s because society is, humanity is, and she’s not afraid to say so.
Thankfully though, Kate’s social conscience is anchored, or freed, depending on which way you want to see it, by her ability to see beyond the daily grind. Brand New Ancients is a work which thrives on small beauties, tiny acts of heroism and the miniature daily battles happening in every high street, backstreet, suburb, small town and city. For some reason the image of the ‘woman by the post box fighting with her brolly’ stuck with me particularly. A metaphor for life, maybe?! We all have our moments, and yet ‘we all need to love and be loved and keep going’.
You may think, as I once did, that making gods out of everyone may not be so wise. ‘The gods are in the betting shops, the gods are at the caff, the gods are smoking fags out the back’. But the point is that potential is there, and we’re all just doing our best with whatever we’ve been given. It’s a hard truth to swallow. It hurts. We all like to think that we’ve made our own life, but reality is murkier. Life makes you just as much as you make your life. It’s a rare soul who rises up in a cloud of triumphant fairy dust, with all the dead weight just dangling, gravity-less. This realisation cuts through any thoughts or feelings of superiority or privilege you might have (and we were sat in a theatre, so let’s be honest, most of us had ‘em).
It didn’t take too long before I was crying like a baby. I think it was the love story that did it. But it wasn’t only me, people all around me were crying tears of Kate-created radical compassion. Brand New Ancients chiselled deep. It broke me down and opened me up, like in the poem, ‘she’s the type of girl whose scars run deep’. It made me understand my own troubles and the troubles of others just a little bit more. Because I’ll tell you a secret; much as I loved this performance, it presented a challenge to me. It’s taken me a while to organise my thoughts and write this, not only because I wanted to do it justice, but because I was struggling with my very own everyday epic.
I’d actually heard Kate Tempest perform once before. I stood straining to catch her set from the entrance to an overflowing tent at Shambala a few years back. I couldn’t see much, but I could certainly hear her. She sounded intense. Almost like a modern-day preacher-poet, talking about ‘the end times’ and a tortured life of rum set to the complications of love. This first Kate Tempest experience left me feeling a bit cold. I had no patience for what I saw as the glorification of human suffering, and the lengths we’ll go to to escape it. I didn’t want to hear a rant of distress at a festival. I hated the old stereotype of poets being all wrapped up in their own woes, and I balked at the way that her poetry had this fatalistic tinge to it. My viewpoint was that while ‘pain is inevitable, suffering [is] optional’. So get your shit together. We’ve all got choices, even if they’re difficult ones.
Time has told me that life is not quite so simple. Back then, pain and filth and dirt offended my fragile positive thinking sensibilities. I saw choice and free will in the lives of others, where I now realise that there was sometimes very little in reality. You’ve got to be able to see a different pathway to even think about taking it. In reality, whatever progress we make in our own life is both relative, and heroic. It’s not to be sniffed at or judged by the parameters of others. One of my favourite sayings comes from Krishnamurti, and it goes ‘I am you, you are me, and the world is us’. I’ve thrown it around for quite a while, but I suppose it’s only now that I’m realising that this does not translate to, ‘I am you, you are me, therefore we are all equal (equalling essentially the same, so why aren’t you a little bit more like me actually!)’
Obviously there’s a limit. Radical compassion doesn’t mean losing your own self and feeling ‘sorry’ for people, or blindly hoping that others will rise above their circumstances, or even worse, you trying to act the saviour or boss people around because you ‘know better’. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you might say – I know all this. Nature versus nurture… blah blah, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Still, it’s so much more complex than that when you try to put this into action in this real thing called life.
In summary, this is the story of how Kate Tempest helped me to organise my thoughts. After a difficult period in my personal life, Brand New Ancients came at just the right time – as these things often tend to do – and belatedly, I realised that ‘the stories are there if you listen’. You don’t have to love ‘em, you don’t even have to put up with ‘em if it’s not good for you, but you can always strive for a more radical compassion. Safe in your own self, you can know where you end and others begin, whilst still understanding that there is no real division. It’s a strong position from which to give and receive love and compassion in your fallible human relationships.
And like Kate says, and she’s talking to all of us, ‘a god remains a god, no matter what it does, and a god becomes a god when it has got the guts to love’.
I’ll leave you with this:
‘You were born for greatness;
believe it. Know it.
Take it from the tears of the poets.’
PS. This link is also well worth checking out. A friend sent it to me and I thought it was remarkable. It’s an article by another poet focusing on so-called ‘sink’ estates, all through the lens of his own life experiences. I think it demonstrates well another angle on many of the issues I’m thinking about in this post.