The Nation’s Favourite Poem

This poem was written in 2012 just after the London Olympics, for which I had left the country. As with the similar spectacles of the Queen’s Jubilee and the European Football Cup, I was struck, on my return to London, by how the streets and public spaces which the previous year had been the site of student protests, anti-capitalism marches, the Occupy movement and nation-wide rioting, had been so demonstrably re-appropriated for the stage-managed celebrations of our nation’s manufactured athletic success. It was around this time that I read somewhere that the nation had voted for its ‘favourite poem’, and the winner, unsurprisingly, was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, a poem which even the least poetic subject of her Majesty would recognise from its famous opening lines: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,’ the first of a series of conditions which, repeated over four stanzas, concludes with the reward for such stoic behaviour: ‘Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!’ What was surprising was that our victim-identifying, celebrity-obsessed, reality-show-watching, investment-banking-beholden, Tory-voting nation should recognise itself in Kipling’s liturgy of the Victorian values of stolid determination, quiet suffering, and collective achievement. But then, that’s how ideology works, isn’t it? – presenting us with the image of who we would like to believe we are, just like the spectacle of the Olympics. But as someone who believes that one of the roles of poetry is to reveal the truth about how we live our lives, I decided to update Kipling’s verses to a more accurate and representative image of British values at the beginning of the 21st Century.

If you think that a government elected democratically
Represents the will of a people;
If you measure the value of any activity
By the money you make from pursuing it;
If you think that adverts for the sports industry
Are the best guide to living your life;
That competition is the only road to quality
And the winner should always take all.

If you believe all the lies you know you are told
Cause you’re too busy too make up your own;
If you’d rather (if we don’t mind) not get involved
Cause your taxes pay someone else to do so;
If you make it a habit to do what you’re told
Cause if you don’t you know you’ll be made to;
And it’s easier to obey and buy what you’re sold,
Leave a tip and forget that it happened.

If you can fill five days of every week
With eight hours’ labour selling fuck knows what;
Then go home, put your feet up, turn on the TV,
And think of all the things that you’ve got;
If you think it’s all worth it at the end of the day,
At the weekends and when your holidays come up;
And you wouldn’t know what to do if you didn’t have a job
Telling you when to eat, sleep, work and fuck.

If you believe that an increase in the wealth of the few
Will increase the wealth of the many;
If you think that your bonus is a well-earned reward,
And property the only judge of plenty;
That the law of the jungle is the survival of the fittest,
And that capitalism is human nature –
Then yours is the world and everything that’s in it,
For you are the status quo – you fucker.

Simon Elmer

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