‘-’ by Jay Bernard

The New Cross fire took place a mile away from where I live in south-east London. Jay Bernard’s author’s note at the beginning of the collection explains: “in the early hours of Sunday morning, on 18th January 1981, a fire broke out at 439 New Cross Road. It was Yvonne Ruddock’s sixteenth birthday party, and she had arranged a party with her cousins to celebrate. The fire spread quickly, killing thirteen young people and injuring twenty-seven others.”

Surge is a fierce and formidable exploration of the events – and the injustices – set into train that January night. It is also a shining work – taut, tender, strange and otherworldly. Bernard’s gaze is unsparing: they return us to the night of the fire, dropping us down into the flat on New Cross Road. In ‘Songbook’ the exuberance of “the rum” and the dancing and the “green nails done nice” slips into sudden, vivid horror: “black smoke”, “screamin”, “flames ah furious red.” And a mother – shoeless – crying on the road. People look on but “to help dem refuse.” Those poems which re-animate the dead, voicing them, individualising their imaginations and deathly experiences are some of the most wrenchingly affecting. This from “–”:

“And then you came and I was calling out to you, dad – and I know you heard me because here we are, dad – come back – don’t bury me – I can’t stand it – I can barely stand it when the lights go off – and I’m here – and spend the whole night listening for you, dad – I want to crawl between mum and you – in your bed, in your sheets, dad – that’s the only kind of burying I want –”

Published in Surge, Chatto and Windus, 2019

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