O Pioneers! (after Willa Cather) by Sarah Barnsley

Back home, our area of Coventry was originally named in the Doomsday book, and in the 19th century when still largely unpopulated, was a place for wealthy tradesmen. However, the city spread to this outlying area in the early 20th century and housing estates began to encroach on the land. My parents bought a two bed terrace there for about £1,500 and all around us, mainly families from Ireland bought up their own. In a way, they were the new pioneers, to borrow from Sarah’s borrowed phrase.

But this was a divided area: between those who owned their houses and those who lived in the identikit council alternative; of course it was only divided by banter. We were no sociologists, but we took on stratification when taking the piss out of those who weren’t allowed to paint their own house, where the streets had the same fence, where dogs roamed wild in hand me down clothes, and there was a pervading smell of poverty. None of the latter was true of course, but it was good fun at the time, and we were all mates (well mostly).

However, such divisions in the working class are often used by politicians to demonise and divide; so they no longer use class as a term, it is all about hard working families, not those on benefits such as the disabled (a third of disabled adults live in a low-income household). It also iniquitously hides the fact that many hard working low income families are on or below the poverty line.

Sarah BarnsleyNonetheless, it doesn’t mean we can’t take the piss out of our own; snobbery is not only for the middle and upper classes. Sarah Barnsley’s poignantly funny poem, O Pioneers! highlights such snobbery in a warm hearted way, when describing the family move; “We travelled to the wild West/Midlands, chugging through/cooling tower canyons in the/turquoise Ford Triumph that/Dad had bought for fifty quid.” But there is tension between parent and child in terms of identity, with the mother wanting to maintain a sense of being of a higher class than where “the cuffies lived,/with brown settees, half cladding/like unfinished Scrabble, and kids/who ran around with their arses/hanging out.” The child wants to belong, doesn’t want to be told to fuck off by the local kids no more, so when tasked with making a clay model of their home at school, “I quiffed the roof/into a triangle, pressed pennies/against the windows, attached/Scrabble pieces up one side/like a climbing ivy of squares,/and moved our cuffy arses into/the frontier, where we belonged.” Brilliant!

I love the use of the term ‘cuffy’, which I had not heard before, to describe a type of ‘lower’ class. It originates from Staffordshire and even became an eponymous TV sitcom about a tinker starring Bernard Cribbens. There are many such terms. The most common one to find its way into the dictionary, the urban one at least, is ‘chav’. I like the ‘common five-eighter’, which I came across in correspondence with Nell Nelson of HappenStance Press, and was apparently quite common (sic) in Scotland; its origin is either from the Second World War where the average size of an infantryman was five foot eight inches, OR denoting the work of eight hours a day, five days a week. In Bournemouth apparently they use the term ‘cacker’, to describe people from neighbouring Poole, who are laughingly a slight cut above your average chav.

Sarah Barnsley was born in 1974 and grew up in the Midlands. She was shortlisted for an Eric Gregory Award (2004), the Bridport Prize (2010), and was joint runner-up in the Poetry School/Pighog Pamphlet Competition (2014).  Her poems have appeared in Envoi, The Frogmore Papers, Magma, Mslexia, Obsessed with Pipework, Raindog, The Stinging Fly and anthologies by the Cinnamon Press and The Shuffle.  Sarah’s debut poetry pamphlet, The Fire Station, was published in September 2015 by Telltale Press.  Sarah teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her first book of literary criticism, Mary Barnard, American Imagist, was published by SUNY Press in 2013.   Sarah lives in Hove and can be found at www.sarahbarnsleypoet.co.uk

O Pioneers!
(after Willa Cather)

We travelled to the wild West
Midlands, chugging through

cooling tower canyons in the
turquoise Ford Triumph that

Dad had bought for fifty quid,
on to the new house behind

the concrete factory. It was still
the right side of Rickerscote Road,

where, Mum said, the cuffies lived,
with brown settees, half cladding

like unfinished Scrabble, and kids
who ran around with their arses

hanging out. They called our new
house ‘the Jesus house’; it had a flat

roof like the bread loaf buildings they’d
seen in pictures of Jerusalem, stuck into

The Children’s Good News Bible
like commemorative stamps.

On my first day of the new school
they pushed me onto a dogshit-

spotted verge and told me to fuck off.
Mum and Dad got the bathroom done

on HP, but not a shower, as that was
just chucking water down the drain,

and even though Barbara Foster
had one with gold-plated taps,

she also had highlights every month,
and bubble-effect double glazing,

and that was common. We had
no carpet downstairs, pampas grass

in the back garden like a bulgy emu,
uniforms from Penkridge Market,

joints from Bejam’s on a Sunday.
In Art we were told to make a

model of ‘your house’ out of clay.
I cut five cool slices, squadged

them together like Jamaica cake.
The teacher didn’t believe it

was really our house, said to do it
again. So I quiffed the roof

into a triangle, pressed pennies
against the windows, attached

Scrabble pieces up one side
like a climbing ivy of squares,

and moved our cuffy arses into
the frontier, where we belonged.

First published in Envoi 155, February 2010; reprinted in The Fire Station (Telltale Press, 2015)


  1. Enjoyed this poem and your introduction very much. Great descriptions & humour & humanity – and it’s a reminder that I have been intending to buy this pamphlet. Must get a wiggle on & do so 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel sure that this poem is not set in Coventry but in Stafford, my home town. I lived for a while in Rickerscote. And yes, there used to be a factory making reinforced concrete about 1/4 mile away..


    1. Hi Wendy, I’m sure you are right. The blog is written by myself (Peter Raynard, and I am from Coventry) as an introduction to the poem. I know it is a little confusing but if you read all the posts you will see that it is a single voice in response to different poems. Thanks for getting in touch. Peter


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