“We Saw It All Happen” Julian Bishop (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Julian Bishop We Saw It All Happen book cover

“We Saw It All Happen” is a collection of poems which highlight environmental and climate concerns. Some of them are necessarily downbeat but many suggest ways and actions that can be taken to counter these wider concerns. They are collected into three sections, ‘Taster’, ‘Mains’ and ‘After’. The first focuses on signs that signal environmental issues, e.g. in “Remember When Hippos Used to Swim?”, where hippopotamuses return to Lake Ngami,

“to lie down and wallow
in a long cool mud bath.

They plunge in fully clothed
but the thick mire grips them,
holds them close. The hippos
panic, flounder deeper
into the gluey folds
of ravenous black sludge.

Hungry vultures circle,
sizing up the mud-braised
Packed tight, they sizzle like
sausages in a huge
African frying pan.”

Drought has emptied the lake of water but the hippopotamuses return through habit and can’t move on in search of water elsewhere. Their mud baths can’t save them from the sun and dehydration, even if they could escape the glue-like effect of the mud. Vultures circle waiting for the inevitable.

“Snow Leopard” is about the one that managed to escape from Dudley Zoo but zoo keepers failed to recapture it, the poem ends,

“to protect the world from a threatened cat
………the marksman only took one shot

to protect the threatened cat from the world
………we only had one shot

………………our empty cages tweet their own tale

………………#hashtag: epicfail

It doesn’t leave much space for comment. The repeat of “threatened cat” and “one shot” tells readers where their sympathy should lie and underlines how protecting the planet and its wildlife really should not be left to humans.

The second section, ‘Mains’, starts with an injection of satire, “Welcome to Hotel Extinction”, ends with an apology for,

“poor air conditioning. We guarantee a good sleep. Beware
of a sudden proliferation in insects—rest assured we are
committed to total elimination. Everything in the Ice Breaker
Tavern is on the rocks, 24/7. We don’t do a Happy Hour.
Think Hotel California: check out any time you like but you
can never leave. Daily wake-up calls are free. Sunset at the
infinity pool is unforgettable. Every room always has flowers.”

There’s a serious message too: continuing the way humans have always done is no longer an option. The happy hour has gone, the bar is named after the loss of sea ice and glaciers, and humans are sleepwalking into a permanent sunset.

The pandemic offered a different perspective. There’s a short sequence of ‘Lockdown Sonnets’ the second “Saffron Green” describes a world merely “inches away” from the A-road,

“the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just inches away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane”

The “exhaust” is ambiguous, the lives described are both exhausting and heading for oblivion.

Initially in the ‘Afters’ section, the humour is ramped up, especially when having a dig at politicians, in “Eton Mess” (the meringue and cream dessert),

“Can be cobbled together in seconds.

  • First take the meringue (white) break it in with cream
    (also white).
  • Crush the strawberries until the pips squeak and the
    juices run like blood.
  • Mash. Scrummy!
  • Aterthought: sprinkle with spun sugar (for decoration).

No deep thought or application required.

NB nota bene: some of the ingredients demand prodigious

It continues, taking swipes at former Prime Ministers, mainly Boris Johnson and David Cameron. At least the Latin is correct. Similarly, “Big O” subtitled “(i.m.)”, characterises oil,

“Black day when Ol’ King Coal got shot,
but then the kill-line for Big O kicked in

when the whole darn world locked down.
Plugs ruptured, his blowout preventer
got plain plumb-tuckered. Sour gas

spudded through his limbs, black holes
at his heart laid bare. Dude so fracking
frail, goddam wind blown him clean away.”

He still swaggers when witnessing the death of coal but it’s all bluster and his fragility is revealed when the world moves on to other sources of energy.

So far the issues of the climate emergency are laid out, firstly with details, rubbish in the oceans choking sea life, moving on to land and the effects of drought and heat and how rubbish humans are at being guardians of the planet. “We Saw It All Happen” then moves into satirical swipes at politicians and those not ready to see a new future of renewables and lacking the urgency to change. “Guerilla” suggests small ways humans might improve. It ends,

“I don’t want roads I want clover
I want thyme…. I want thrift
trench warfare against the endless drives
and your big wheels won’t stop us

until irises run up a white flag
until I see heartsease….. honesty

and love lies bleeding
by every wasted roadside”

It makes the point that humans may be heading for extinction but nature can fight back if humans support it and let it. It might start with small plants taking back spaces currently given over to tarmac, but there’s a note of hope.

“We Saw It All Happen” is a collection that has the climate emergency firmly in its sights, but it’s not a didactic, handwringing swansong that writes humanity off completely. Politicians are fair game, their reluctance to make real, lasting change explored through satire. Oil swaggers in and drifts out like Trump. Julian Bishop seeds hope. It’s not too late (yet). We can each make small changes to bring out larger wins. It entertains.

“We Saw It All Happen” is available from Fly on the Wall.

We All It All Happen Blog Tour

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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