Come Home Alive By Penny Pepper
Burning Eye Books 2018, RRP £9.99 

Reviewed by Pete Donohue

Published performance poet, author, journalist and disability rights activist Penny Pepper is no stranger to Hastings & St Leonards. Sharing her time over the last few years between touring her poetry performances and disability awareness campaigns, along with her one woman show Lost in Spaces, around the UK with living up in London and in a caravan down here. Now Penny has made her always intended move to a permanent home in Hastings and our town is culturally all the richer for that.

Penny & Pete at Sheer Poetry in Bookbusters Hastings

From first finding her voice as a rebellious punk in the Thatcher era, Pepper’s creative and campaigning journey has seen her progress from fanzine contributor to regular writer for The Guardian and a cultural and political commentator on national television and radio, including Newsnight, BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and Woman’s Hour. She has also published an award-winning erotic novel about sex and disabled people Desires Reborn and a well-received memoir First In The World Somewhere. The long-awaited Come Home Alive, however, is the first full collection of her poetry to be published.

Burning Eye Books is a small independent based in the South West predominately specialising in promoting spoken word artists and describing itself as an upstart indie punk publishing company. “We aim to dispel the assumption that performance poetry does not transfer well to the page as well as give emerging and established artists opportunities to be published where they might be rejected from other traditional poetry publishers. We look for the bold, the fearless and the strange, and we pride ourselves on providing a conscious portfolio of brilliant poets and writers”, they declare. Winner of Most Innovative Publisher in the Saboteur Awards 2016 their slogan is ‘Never Knowingly Mainstream’ and as publishers of fellow campaigning Hastings poet Salena Godden they have proved a perfect print outlet for Penny Pepper’s work.

The poems in this collection cover events, feelings and thoughts that span from childhood through to the present day. Which were written at the time (perhaps reworked later) or which were penned retrospectively is never obvious and hardly matters. What is crystal clear from reading this collection, and following Pepper’s prolific activism, is that here is a woman who found her voice early in life and that it is a voice many find endearing and inspirational.

Pepper sets out her stall in the opening poems, inspired by her childhood: ‘To boldly reach where no cripple girl has gone!’ (Lost In Spaces) and ‘To tell the stories I never found’ (Bookworm). Through her teens she soon learns to reject the stereotypes and limitations often put upon the disabled by many sections of society and by institutionalised prejudice, as she forms a strong personal identity through discovering her own sexuality and the power of rebellion. In poems like Linda, Mammogram and Mashed up (where a boyfriend ‘tells me I’m so crip fantastic’) Pepper refuses to accept being turned into ‘a specimen on the demanding rack’ in order to celebrate and enjoy her life in all its fullness of sensuality and excitement. The remaining poems in the first section of this collection are essentially romantic exploring themes of love, lust and nature.

As we reach the halfway point however, the work becomes pointedly more political as Pepper begins to air her ‘protest voice’. In the wonderful Special she berates attitudes of sentimentality towards, or pity for, those with disabilities to conclude ‘I AM FUCKING SPECIAL’.  The main theme as the collection continues is the steady erosion of disability rights, funding and facilities that the UK has seen during her lifetime so far, and this is where Pepper develops her voice as a spokesperson for those unfairly wronged as well as friends and supporters of this cause. A succession of politicians presiding over this travesty of society, from Thatcher and Blair through to Osbourne and Johnson, get the full acerbity of her words in the neck. Another favourite poem, Scrounger, although not naming them directly, clearly targets Cameron, May and the seemingly coldest-of-cold-hearts Iain Duncan Smith. No victim mentality evident here however, and, as with her journalism and activism, Pepper comes out fighting:

I shout and I spin
At the string of their lies
I’m a new Boadicea
Together we rise!

Cripplegate Town is another poem directed at IDS and his ilk, with Pepper both celebrating the resilience of those sections of our communities forced into unnecessary vulnerability within our so-called modern world whilst questioning whether society has really become any more civilised, caring or, indeed, sharing since the Middle Ages: ‘Tempus fugit, time it flies, yet much goes on the same – Disabled people’s open bowls rust with a different name.’ In the reality of those who may find accessibility and inclusivity more of a struggle than others, she points out, we have yet to move out of the Dark Ages.  Think about this as you go about the business of your daily life – is it with ease or difficulty?

This collection pulls no punches and, rightly so, all those institutions that have caused abuse and distress to our most vulnerable from within an unchecked powerbase stand accused here. A military that discards its damaged war veterans, the atrocities of the Saville-era BBC, child abuse within the church and, both public and private, healthcare institutions all feature in Pepper’s poetic roll call of disgrace. Happily, and characteristically for Pepper, the book ends on a celebratory high – a mark of good editing. The closing poems speak of the poet’s loves – in which Hastings features predominantly – and the joy of making one’s mark as a true individual: Oh, Baby, You Can.

Having seen her perform some of these poems live I can now testify how well they work both on the page and on stage. She demonstrates a natural skill for expressing the shortfalls of our society, and in particular those entrenched attitudes that impact unnecessarily and unjustly on the day-to-day lives of our sisters and brothers who may live with disability or difference of any kind. Pepper exposes truths in a way that prioritises fact over emotion and, refreshingly, without bitterness or sentimentality. The key to this poetry is the sharing of personal experiences along with subtly expressed messages of importance that radiate from raucously engaging words. A raw honesty combined with compassionate humour inhabits Pepper’s work throughout.

• Come Home Alive is available from local bookshops (to order if out of stock) or through:
Twitter: @penpep
Instagram: pennyapepper

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