Having a laugh. Taking the piss. Bit of banter. Up for the craic. All are the stereotypical currency of conversation in the workplace. All assume a set of common of interests and culture amongst the workers: betting, beer, birds and football (obviously male dominated ones that is). And certainly a lot of such talk goes on in the mail rooms, building sites, pubs and changing rooms across the country.
However, you wouldn’t necessarily assume that such a group would be talking about something ‘deeper’, about who they are, their purpose, or the meaning of life itself. But in Billy Letford’s poem, Wit is it? such a conversation is going on, presented as an unknown question answered differently by the stonemason, plumber, sparky, labourer, joiner, gaffer and roofer. ‘it’s aw in yur heed’…’It’ll ‘stope yur hert deed’…’It’s aw in the mix’…’wit diz it mettur‘.
I can imagine this as an opening scene of a Samuel Beckett type play; them all in their positions on a building site looking down at something beneath them that we can’t see, that we never see.
And the point of the poem is not their answers so much, as that undefined question. Here is Billy’s thoughts on the poem:
“Have you ever had a day when you’ve been dying to scream, ‘tell me the right question to ask cause it seems like everybody about here has got an answer to everything.’ I didn’t shout it, but one day I strategically placed my elbow down on a table and said, ‘I wish I knew the right question, because it’s awfy like you’ve got the answer to everything.’ The person (who looks very like me) who shall remain nameless leant forward and said, ‘There’s nae need to know the question…I’ll tell you the answer anyway.’ That retort kicked about inside my head for a long time. Then while I was working I began to imagine a series of answers.”
What I like then, besides the deep dialect (sorry for lack of translation, my Dad’s from Glasgow so I can hear him speaking when I read this), is the difference of opinion among them, which I think lies at the heart of having a laugh, or taking the piss; it is all part of the camaraderie of the workplace, whether they’re talking about football, love, politics, or debating the meaning of life. And I like the thought that they could each be answering a different question. I think Beckett would have liked the premise behind Billy’s poem.
Here’s Billy reading his poem, Be Prepared
William Letford was born in Stirling. He has received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust, an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary, was named as one of Canongate‘s Future Forty, and has been involved in poetry projects in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and India. His work has appeared on BBC radio and BBC television. His debut collection Bevel was published by Carcanet in 2012. A chapbook of his poems And then there was skin was translated into Slovakian and published by Vertigo in 2014.
Wit is it
The stonemason sade it’s aw in yur heed
Yur eyes ur like windeez an yur brain’s gon naywhere
Build yurself a palace
The plumber told mi no eh complicate things
Ivrythin’s movin in one direction
We jist caerry it fur a while then lit it go
A sparky fay Partick sade it’s impossible ti see
bit yu’ll know when yuv found it
It’ll stope yur hert deed an throw yi right oot yur boots
The labourer stood up, it’s aboot strength, son
Wit kin yi caerry, wit kin yi leave behind
Roughcast Johnny sade it’s three parts sand
an one part cement. It’s aw in the mix
The joiner stubbed oot eez fag
If a man’s goat the misyur eh eezsel
wit diz it mettur
A looked it the gaffer. Work hard, he sade
bit that wiz his answer fur ivrythin
Slate Knife Mcallum shouted fae the roof
It’s aboot perspective, son, where eh yi standin
Wit eh yi lookin it
Then the rain came, heavy, bouncing
Pock marks appeared in Johnny’s cement
Puddles wur jumpin aroond the sparky’s feet
Half Brick Mcpherson pulled oan eez waterproofs
Listen tae that, he sade, this is it, a think this is it