Poet Luke Wright confesses to being a history nerd, with a special interest in the Georgian era. In this age before newspapers, stories would propagate via ‘broadside ballads’. These poems would be composed by hawkers who wrote about the notorious figures of the day, and who would sell copies for a penny a pop on street corners as well as performing them for passing trade.
These broadside ballads were the precursor of news, of novels, even of pop music. There were also, Wright explains from his research, pretty terrible. So he has written his own versions featuring some of the originals’ subjects.
His starting tale is of Edward Dando, an apprentice hat maker whose obsession with oysters far exceeded his ability to pay for them. It’s a welcome introduction to Wright’s methodology for this collection of poems – presenting a vivacious personality with a combination of caricature and charisma, comparing characters and situations to their 21st century equivalents, and every so often dropping out of the story to comment on the balladic form and his glee at presenting it thus.
Wright then dips into the murder ballad, a gory tale of a man brutally murdering his wife, only to eventually meet his end at the hands of the couple’s vengeful daughter.
It is a genre whose twin obsessions of true crime and misogyny have dominated the tabloid press until the present day. While Wright’s tale is violent and bloody, his version gives prominence to the women victims that the originals reduced to a single line in favour of lionising their attackers. After his version ends, Wright points out that it is only in recent years that the media have reluctantly followed suit, focussing on the victims rather than the attacker.
The ballads continue, focusing first on Richard Barry, the Earl of Barrymore and his criminal family, and then on Jemmy, a Birmingham candy seller who falls foul of a judicial system skewed against the common man. Through both, Wright continues the use of allusions to contemporary life to emphasise that little has changed. This is Horrible Histories for grown-ups – amusing, immersive, educational, but predominantly damned entertaining.
After a brief interval, everything comes together with a single, multi-part poem that comprises the entirety of Wright’s second act. The Ballad of Mary Ann Pearce, the Boxing Baroness sees characters and storytelling styles from Wright’s earlier poems recur – as one might expect, given that Pearce was briefly married to Barry.
Using a framing device that imagines a couple not unlike his own parents watching Pearce’s story serialised into a BBC costume drama, Wright brings all the strands and themes of the evening together. 200 years after the Georgian era, our obsessions and foibles are little different.
One thing is different, though; the broadside ballads were poor quality, and that’s something that could never be said of such well-crafted work as Wright’s.
The poet started his first ballad of the evening with a description of himself, saying, “Hurrah, it’s me!” He makes light of it, saying that all artists who put their work in front of others are basically all saying the same thing, this is a sliver of themselves presented for our consumption.
But by the end of the evening, we’re all feeling it. Hurrah, we think. It’s him.