Exclusive: Nigerian writer, cited as inspiration by Labour leader in speech, pens new verse suggesting ‘There’s always a new way’ and sends it to the Guardian
The poet and novelist Ben Okri has repaid the compliment of being cited as an inspiration in Jeremy Corbyn’s first major speech as Labour leader – in a poem celebrating a new dream of political power bringing peace, health and happiness.
Corbyn, in his first speech as leader to a Labour conference, namechecked Okri, along with Maya Angelou and Kier Hardie, saying: “It was the great Nigerian writer Ben Okri who perhaps put it best: ‘The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love.’”
Okri, a Booker prize-winning novelist, playwright and poet, has responded with a new poem in which he does not name Corbyn, but comes close to conjuring a vision of a bearded angel in a tweed jacket. A New Dream of Politics is a salute to idealism, and a rejection of “cynics and doomsayers”, which he has given exclusively to the Guardian.
The two men have never met, and Okri was in the south of France finishing a script when he heard about the speech. He told the Guardian: “I got a text from a Gibraltar friend who was there – I thought he was hallucinating. But I was very pleased, very touched. It’s a brave thing for a politician these days to admit to reading contemporary writers.
“But we need politicians who read widely, who read the classics, the masters, but who also read contemporary writers, who read across colour, across race, across class. If we don’t have politicians who read widely, how can we ever get to a new politics?”
Can we still seek the lost angels
Of our better natures?
Can we still wish and will
For poverty’s death and a newer way
To undo war, and find peace in the labyrinth
Of the Middle East, and prosperity
In Africa as the true way
To end the feared tide of immigration?
The ode takes an apparent swipe at Corbyn’s opponents, inside and outside the Labour party, who have damned him as idealistic but unelectable, a dreamer not a doer.
They say there is only one way for politics
That it looks with hard eyes at the hard world
And shapes it with a ruler’s edge
Measuring what is possible against
Acclaim, support, and votes.
Okri sets this against the measures of political greatness “in ancient times”, calculated “by the gold of contentment”, by laughter, peace, justice and health. Even happiness for poets, since one of his indicators is the silent appreciation of bards telling of such good governance.
The poem promises:
“Always when least expected an unexpected Figure rises”, and in a final couplet that could almost fit on a lapel badge concludes:
There’s always a new way
A better way that’s not been tried before
Can Corbyn get to Okri’s vision? The playwright said: “Perhaps, perhaps. It depends on how he comes through this political period in which we find ourselves, and whether his party is prepared to let this spirit be possible. But at least, surely, there will be change.”