Writer and filmmaker Jay Bernard interrogates the 1981 New Cross Fire and Grenfell in a new multimedia poetry show called Surge at the Albany, based on their prize-winning one-off performance which won the Ted Hughes Award 2018 for New Work in Poetry.
Surge revisits the tragedy where 13 young black people lost their lives in a house fire. Nearly 40 years later, against the backdrop of Grenfell, the cause of the fire is still a mystery, clouded by police incompetence and government indifference.
Told in the voices of those who died, and using archive film, video and audio, Surge asks what we can learn from the New Cross Fire in the age of Grenfell, Brexit, Trump, increasing xenophobia and the resurgence of the far right.
Heather Marks speaks to Jay Bernard ahead of Surge’s debut at the Albany.
Surge is both a performance piece and poetry collection (published by Chatto & Windus). How did it come about?
I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a residency at the George Padmore Institute by Speaking Volumes, initially for the institute’s 50th birthday and the anniversary of New Beacon Books. I’d been to New Beacon Books before, but I didn’t know anything about the archive. So I went and had a look around in 2016, and I came across the New Cross Fire box in the collection. This box really caught my attention, because here was a ready made story that I vaguely knew about; I had seen Menelik Shabazz’s Blood Ah Go Run but I didn’t know much, so I ended up spending a lot of time with that box and wrote 10 poems that were commissioned. I thought, ‘Here are 10 poems, why not continue thinking about it?’
I put together more poems, got asked to do a film (Something Said) and felt that with all this material, why not write about that. As the poems were developing, I did a show at the Last Word Festival – a sort of scratch festival – where I incorporated the film. It took off from there really, and started becoming a real body of work.
How do you translate the paratext from the collection to the performance?
It was very important to me that I had images in the book, which I hoped (on a subconscious level) would indicate the three modes of the book and the three modes of a social movement: the instant, the action and the victory. That victory can be pyrrhic or not entirely clear. Ultimately [in Surge] that final image of the parents at the vigil is supposed to be a bittersweet victory – of both how far Black Britishness has come, but also how far we have to go. That’s how the archival material translates into the show.
For example, the soundscape. We’ve got audio from the time with Darcus Howe and John La Rose speaking about the politics of the period. But it’s not solely about the New Cross Fire – they speak about grander, ethical, philosophical issues too. John La Rose, a poet, talks about literature and the term ‘surge’ comes from a recording I listened to where they were at the third Radical Black Book Fair. [Howe and La Rose] were on a panel called ‘Resurgence or Barbarism’ which talks about how when the Left surges, it needs to have a vision, otherwise it makes way for barbarism – which is the right wing – and what we’re literally seeing today. I’m not trying to present the material in a didactic way, I’m presenting it in a very embodied and imaginative way.
Haunting is a prominent element in Surge, whether it be the ghosts of the New Cross Fire or those of Grenfell. At the end of the author’s note in the collection, you write: “I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history, but I also haunt it back.” Can you explain what you mean by this mutual haunting?
The reason I say that I ‘haunt it back’ is because I think it’s a way of being a bit provocative, but also to think about it in two strands. First there’s the archive itself. Going back through the archive felt like I was inhabiting and watching people’s lives, and to me, that is the figure of the ghost. Instead of solely thinking of myself as researcher or historian, it became important to think of myself as a ghost -a presence in the past – to see these people as living, occupying a slightly different dimension to me, but I’m inhabiting their realm, not the other way around. And that was really useful in getting the feel of the book. I’m an observer, yet I’m there, but I’m not, and there’s also this really strong materiality coming through; I genuinely feel like the archive is a body and it does connect us back to the past.
The second strand is something that links to what Gail Lewis said beautifully about how the notion of haunting is the future. Gail was speaking about Audre Lorde when she said that being haunted by somebody is actually to connect with that person; the ghost is an indication of some future thing that you need to be aware of. When you’re haunted, it means that your present and your actions need to be rethought. That was an incredibly powerful idea to me.
Also, the idea that in Western time, we believe that we walk forward into the future, that we can see it. But actually, there are other forms of time where people walk backwards into the future. As they walk, they’re actually looking in the opposite direction to what you might expect.
The performance of Surge is taking place at the Albany, close to where the New Cross Fire happened. What was the intention behind this decision?
The Albany invited us to do it, but it’s also the fact that this is the local theatre where I live in New Cross. It’s around the corner from where this thing happened, and the Albany is part of the history I describe. Did you know the Albany was firebombed in the 1980s? They left a note basically saying: ‘Got you.’ It was a racist attack because the Albany was a place where people were organising against racism. The book is about the New Cross Fire – it’s infused with the smoke – but a lot of the poems could be about other things and stem from other historical moments. For example, Proof came out of the Windrush rather than any specific story to do with the New Cross Fire, but that’s the point – these things overlap. So when people come to see the show, they’ll see I’m not only talking about the New Cross Fire but that it’s a beginning point. I talk about all kinds of things – queerness, race, the body, the city. [Surge] is a lot bigger than that.
Is there something you want audience members to take away from the performance?
My only real desire is that older people feel that Surge, if not historically accurate, is at least faithful in some experiential way. And that a younger person might recognise that the archive belongs to them – that they can access their own history and historical records. Everyone I know who has ever been into an archive has been transformed by it. It’s a very simple and cheap way of transforming your understanding. I hope they get that and start to engage too.
Surge is showing at the Albany Thursday 20 June – Saturday 22 June 2019, 7.30pm. Tickets are available to purchase here. Surge is also available to purchase as a poetry collection from Penguin Books here.
Photo credit: Joshua Virasami
 Menelik Shabazz’s Blood Ah Go Run (1982) is a short documentary made in the aftermath of the New Cross Fire in January 1981.
 Darcus Howe was a British civil rights campaigner. He was a member of the British Black Panther Party, a defendant of the Mangrove Nine trial, and an organising force behind the Black People’s Day of Action – the largest ever demonstration by the Black community in Britain, catalysed by the New Cross Fire.
 John La Rose was a poet, cultural activist and founder of New Beacon Books, the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop and international book service in Britain.
 Gail Lewis, a key figure of Black British feminist history. Now a sociologist, Lewis was a long-standing member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and co-founder of the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD).