Surge was written by Jay Bernard while they were in residence at The Padmore Institute, an organisation dedicated to radical Black history in Britain. Over this week, I wanted to focus on some non fiction accounts of Black British history and life today. Surge creatively puts an important event into perspective through poetry
The collection of Poetry reflects on The New Cross Fire. On 18th January 1981, a fire blazed through 439 New Cross Road, killing 13 young Black people. All were at a party celebrating the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock. It was met with government and media indifference. ’13 Dead And Nothing Said’ Witnesses intimidated. Witness reports of racists involvement in the incident ignored. I was reminded of it while reading The Louder I Will Sing, which references it.
Sometimes it’s simplest to read a news story, particularly a painful one, and then push it to the back of your mind. Surge forces you to imagine. I’ve known about the New Cross Fire of 1981 for a while. For me, it was brought to the fore again after the Grenfell fire. Reminders in bold that though many years have passed, some things have remained the same. Surge forces you to imagine. Imagine memories that never even belonged to you to begin with. In poetry, Jay Bernard movingly animates a fear that belonged to other people. I felt that devastation of a father identifying his child by clothing. The youthful excitement of rhythm at the start of ”Song Book’, followed by the harrowing realities that close it. It really resonated. Maybe because I can imagine the children. Couldn’t have been that different from my friends and I when in secondary school.
So it’s our story. It isn’t just archives. Reading Surge sent me down a Google rabbit hole to find out more. I realised I had walked past 439 New Cross Road on a few occasions. I was curious to find out more from people living through the time so found some videos. The BFI Documentary by Menelik Shabazz cost £1 to rent but is worth it
Even through the tragedy, Black Britons persisted. Against racism, police and media violence, People’s Day Of Action was born. An inspiration. It was the largest demonstration of Black people in British History- From Lewisham to Hyde Park! In the rain and against Police resistance!
In Surge, Jay Bernard not only reminds us of 439 New Cross Road. They remind us of resilience, how ubiquitous Black culture is in the UK, of strength in numbers.
I read Surge during the Lockdown and it reminded me what good poetry could do. It is one of my favourite collections
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s New Cross Massahkah also explores The New Cross Fires. Johnson has this week won the PEN prize (congratulations!)
Benjamin Zephaniah is another legendary writer who explored the event through his work
Surge By Jay Bernard, published by Chatto And Windus 2019
I didn’t even know this existed but it sounds incredibly powerful!
I found it really powerful, I think it captures what the sentiment could have been at the time. It is devastating but I really think we need to know about it. Especially how Black people came together to organise afterwards. Thanks for reading