Protests following the Grenfell tragedy Bernard writes aboutGarry Knight (2016) / EachOther

As someone who is not the biggest fan of poetry (bearing a particular hatred for TS Eliot) Jay Bernard’s collection Surge has inspired new hope. Often uncomfortable to read, Bernard’s work is more relevant than ever following the events of the Black Lives Matter movement, as it inspires deep reflection on the racism that is too often ignored in Britain.

Surge focuses on two major events in recent black British history: the New Cross Massacre (1981), and the Grenfell fire (2017). Bernard highlights the lack of social progress and the lack of accountability taken by authorities through their comparison, as well as exploring the terrible impact these events had on families and communities. The New Cross Massacre was a house fire that killed 13 young black people, on the morning of 18 January 1981, with one further committing suicide as a result. The fire occurred in the wake of fascist attacks in Forest Hill and the Albany Empire theatre – the National Front claiming responsibility for the latter. Indeed, many in New Cross suspected the fire to be racially motivated, and the police’s belief that no arson was involved created serious tensions, culminating in the Brixton Riots later that year. 

Jay Bernard’s collection is hard-hitting. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. But it's worth it…

Bernard takes us through the journey of this fire from the perspective of the victims and families who suffered as a result. ‘Arrival’ acts as a poignant opening to Surge. “Remember that we were brought here from the clear water of our dreams”, Bernard writes, evoking the promises given to those who came during the Windrush generation and the racism which they subsequently endured. With no full stops and no commas, the fear of the New Cross fire victims rattles off in harrowing detail. Appropriately, Surge originally debuted as a performance piece, with the sub-title 'Side A', and the collection lives up to this title. It is very much a tale of the victims. The first side of the tape is often ignored for the other, easier-to-bare side.It is hard to read without choking up.

I think it fair to say that it is unusual for the first poem of a collection to catch at the back of the throat. It is also fair to say that this collection carries on delivering. Through 31 poems, Bernard jumps between New Cross and Grenfell with a deft hand, weaving a storyline that encompasses both the raw grief of victims’ families and the legacy that marks Bernard’s life today. Peppered with quotes, text messages, and photographs, Surge is also a visual commemoration of New Cross and Grenfell. This modern presentation aids Bernard’s conveyance of systemic racism. 

As with the Black People’s Day of Action in 1981, which took place as a result of the New Cross fire, Jay Bernard also presents a sense of anger. They utilise shifts in narrative voice to highlight parallels between New Cross and Grenfell. Deliberately, it is hard to immediately discern which poems refer to which tragedy. ‘Songbook’ is an example of this. Although not the most provocative of Bernard’s work (arguably ‘+’ and ‘-’ are hardest to read), ‘Songbook’ presents most clearly the struggle for change. Aptly, the poem takes the form of verse and chorus. But, the reggae-like rhythm used by Bernard creates an unsettling contrast with the message. They write “Me seh ah tree step fahwahd an ah six step back”, poignantly summing up the frustration which is weaved through the collection. 

Bernard’s frustration is not only about a lack of progress.

However, Bernard’s frustration is not only about a lack of progress. Bernard writes in the author’s note that they had  “grown up as a black British Londoner with a piecemeal understanding” of the New Cross Massacre. Surge acts as the poet’s cathartic outlet as Bernard learns the truth of their heritage – it is a cry for education. It is, thus, no coincidence that Bernard finishes with bitter ‘Flowers’, asking if anyone will speak of the struggle they have endured in “the way the flowers do”.


Mountain View

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Jay Bernard’s collection is hard-hitting. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. But it is worth it, though uncomfortable it may be. Bernard’s words precipitate a deep sense of compassion and empathy, as well as educating those (such as myself) who have never suffered racism. This collection is about more than just despair. As Bernard says in their author’s note, “I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” There is a weariness towards past injustices, but also a resilient promise: never forget, never let it be repeated. Two terrible fires with too little accountability: Bernard shows we must not let it happen again. We can therefore finally answer the question they pose in ‘Flowers’. Thanks to Bernard, there may be the chance to speak the way the flowers do. If only the GCSE poetry anthologies were as good as this.

Surge won The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award (2020), and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize (2019), Costa Poetry Award (2019), Dylan Thomas Prize (2020), and the RSL Ondaatje Prize (2020).