20 Feb 2021

By Joe Smith

Victoria McNulty’s book Exiles, is set in Glasgow in the aftermath of the Iraq War, telling the story of a young couple navigating what has become a dystopian police state.

The performance begins with a foreword, followed by three sections, the first of which is prefaced by an on-screen quote from Jimmy Reid’ on Alienation. Victoria begins ‘Glasgow has fallen. If she ever really stood…’ What follows is a description of a dystopian city in which Icarus, one of two main characters, struggles to escape.

The Glasgow where Icarus lives is a punitive city of surveillance, of state intrusion, informational capture and cultural appropriation. This is a city where even the graffiti is commissioned by the council. There is a sense of relentlessness, of going round in circles, of being caught in an endless loop. Icarus feels Exiled at home.

The first part received great praise from the audience – “This is fantastic. An entire city in a poem”, “Beautiful and powerful” and – “Super lyrical”.

In the conversation between poet and discussant, Casi Dylan returns to the issue of histories intertwined to consider how this facilitates the story that unfolds. Victoria explains that she tells the story in both truths and half-truths, through history and myth in order to ask the question, who is the city even for?

Part Two is prefaced by a quote from Tony Blair on combatting terrorism. We embark upon a new imperial adventure that centres on the invasion of Iraq. The irony becomes apparent. For all of Tony Blair’s rhetoric about the urgent need to fight terrorism and to stop its spread, the war only serves to radicalise, militarise, and eventually to give birth to an Islamic state, represented by Daesh. Terrorists are created by the ‘war on terror’.

In the conversation, Casi asks, what comes first, poetry or politics? Victoria doesn’t need to ponder this question. “Politics. I am a poet, because of my politics, my poetry is my way of expressing my politics”. The first mention is made about a vocabulary of war, something to which we will return. Casi’s next question explores Victoria’s propensity to embed the key characters of classical myths within contemporary contexts. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, Victoria’s degree in Celtic Studies makes her passionate about mythology. Secondly, it provides the conditions for the creation of timeless characters, and thirdly, as Victoria humbly points out, she is a bit of a classics geek.

Comments from the audience include: “Hearing you read is wonderful Victoria. Love the book, read it as soon as I got it. Our voices matter, you light them up.”, and “Reminds me of early Bob Dylan” (none too shabby praise indeed!).

The third section follows a quote from James Connolly, on why the direction of a march is more important than the numbers who take part. We move onto Eve’s story, one which arises from a historicisation of a Glasgow that not only attributes its great wealth and standing to the ill-gotten gains of empire (slavery and looting), but one that has on its hands the blood of its women ‘for the crime of standing tall’. Witches, suffragettes, rent strikers, all women who pose a threat.

We return to the dystopia of contemporary Glasgow in which the main threat is an existential one. The War metaphor returns. War on terror, drugs, poverty, crime, war on anything and everything… a war that numbs us to its effects, through constant exposure.

The performance finishes with the question – how do we get out of Exile? The answer may be that we don’t. Perhaps we simply carve deeper grooves every time we loop around. Victoria says that we are caught in a world in which only our thoughts are free. I wonder though, that in our Radical New Future, the encroachment of the surveillance state becomes so complete, that even these very thoughts themselves become policed.

This is a powerful and important piece of poetry. This kind of poetry is great to read, it is even better to hear and to experience as a performance.

If you missed Victoria McNulty's Exiles you can watch again with this link until 26th March. Her book is available via Speculative Books, more information here

There's still time to register for tickets for Paisley Book Festival events here