Metal figures prominently in the lives of the working classes. The term, the common ‘five-eighters’, although sometimes defined as being the average suit size of a soldier in the second world war, and of the working week (8 hours a day, five days a week), it is also derived from the rivet size of the workers on the shipyards. Riveting was a big job; the Titanic was held together (for a short time at least) by over 3 million rivets. Nowadays, it is the welders who have taken over from these original five-eighters.
Metal has a long history, dating back to 6,000 BC with the use of gold fashioned into jewellery. Many of the main metals of today, copper, lead, iron and tin, date back to these pre-historic times. One of the more recent metals and the subject of Rachel McCarthy’s touching poem, Abandoned Airfield at Dunkeswell, about her father’s job fitting aircrafts, is Titanium; as strong as steel it is less dense, resistant to corrosion and perfect therefore for the construction of aeroplanes. Rachel takes us right into the huge workplace, “the hangar’s simple machines of history,/the pop-rivet gun and punch clock,/the workbench morse-code of chisel and nail.” However, like its richer ancestor gold, its utility extends into the making of jewellery.
Titanium is also one of the elements of the periodic table and Rachel has done a wonderful thing in her pamphlet, Element (a laureate’s choice) where within the poems, she has brought science and poetry together with the intention, as she says in a recent Guardian article, “to take the periodic table off the laboratory wall and bring it into everyday stories and experience”.
Here Rachel explains her father’s work:
“Every day when my dad came home from work at British Aerospace he’d hang up his blue, oily overalls under the stairs. I can still smell them now, a pungent blend of grease, sweat and metal shavings. It was the smell of hard, industrial labour. To me those overalls came to symbolise my father’s grittiness and sense of responsibility to his small family, especially as he far from loved his job building wings for Tornado, Eurofighter and Airbus, even though he was very proficient at it. His disenchantment was partly because the pay – as in many skilled manual professions in the North West and beyond– was unreflective of the job’s inherent difficulty and his decades of expertise. Factory life is grimy and repetitive. In a world where high-fashion, fame or daring is most often used to assess worth, factory life, however much it contributes to the economy and safety of the country, has little. Factory life is rendered out of sight, which over time becomes out-of-mind.
I moved to Exeter before my dad retired a few years ago. Dunkeswell is a small village on its outskirts, home to a partly derelict airfield that was used by the U.S. forces during WW2. The shop floors of the small factories and hangars there are now empty. The men of seventy-odd years ago, who toiled long hours like my father, were gone. I watched light aircraft take-off from the one still useable runway and thought about the American pilots who would have done the same, but moreso the unseen men like my father, who had allowed them to.”
Rachel McCarthy was born in Preston, Lancashire in 1984. She is a climate scientist, poet and broadcaster. In 2015 she was chosen by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy as one of four of the most exciting new voices in British poetry. Her first pamphlet ‘Element’ was published in June 2015 by Smith Doorstop, under the imprint of ‘Laureate’s Choice’. She is the former Director of Exeter Poetry Festival and splits her time between the UK and France.
You can find out more about Rachel here: www.rachelmccarthy.com
Abandoned Airfield at Dunkeswell
The height of summer. I thread my shadow
along the runway’s vein of moss.
Nothing remains to mark the point
from which to look down
the length of sun-soft strip
that speeds back to this:
the hangar’s simple machines of history,
the pop-rivet gun and punch clock,
the workbench morse-code of chisel and nail.
Pray for the fathers who took flight –
that they lifted themselves away gently –
but also for those housed in echoing halls
returning year after year
like swallows, to build.