Down Smallthorne by Ann Graal

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Coconut Comb Over*

In the last but one feature, I wrote about how in an era of wide choice, generally people are still quite conservative in their tastes. Whether it be clothes, TV programmes, sport or books, the mainstream elicits almost a copybook practice to consumption. This relates to us as being creatures of habit. We will tend only to change our day to day, when something forces us to; e.g. if losing a job, having children, or a mid-life crisis (or all three rolled into one). I liken it to the man who when going bald decides to comb over the exposed parts of his head. He will do this for years and years, even when he is left with only a few wispy strands drawn from the side of his ear.

But habit and routine are not necessarily a bad or delusional thing. They provide great comfort to many people; go with what you know, if ain’t broke don’t fix it, etc., are clichés that many people live by. Ann Graal’s poem, Down Smallthorne, relates the routine of ‘Aunt Maud’: “Asked where she was off to any morning,/summer, winter, wet or dry, she’d shout out,/down Smallthorne –  never spent a night away/from 4, Wharf Street.” This reminded me of Young & Wilmot’s Family and Kinship in the east end of London, in which one interviewee said: “I wouldn’t leave old Bethnal Green, I wouldn’t take a threepenny bus ride outside Bethnal Green, to go up the other end.”

Even people who live in cities, will only tend to go to two places – the part where they live and the city centre. Like Aunt Maud, we may take the same route, for example when out shopping. “into/Swettenham’s grocers – sawdust thick on the floor,/(she buys her cheese and bacon there) past/Graham’s – chemists, right opposite the black/parish church – (she goes there

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” Routine

twice on Sundays)/and into Oddies – where she might leave Harold’s/work boots, or pick up her own Mary Janes.” And on the way you collect all of the news and gossip with those who are similarly doing the rounds.

But you get a feeling that this is a fading history; such a routine, which gives you security and familiarity is becoming far more fragile with more and more people being defined as part of the ‘precariat’. There is nothing wrong with change per se, but when it comes at an ever increasing speed, to squeeze the last drops of profit to feed high capitalism, then the smallness of Aunt Maud’s life becomes something to envy; where “opening a window/onto some plain brick street, always known/like she knew any of the streets down/Smallthorne – just like she knew her own.

 

Ann Graal lived, up to the age of eighteen in, Smallthorne, a mining village in North Staffordshire. She taught in several  schools in Stoke-on- Trent, before marrying in her late twenties, moving to Teesside and having her two sons. In the 1970s she obtained a degree in English at the University of Durham, an experience which confirmed her love of poetry, which she eventually began to write after she retired. She has published one pamphlet ‘In A Savage Country’ with Vane Women, At the moment she is putting together a chap book for The Black Light Engine Room, and trying to write more about her village and its inhabitants in the period after the war.

 

DOWN SMALLTHORNE
                                   For Maud Ellerton (Aunt Maud)

Asked where she was off to any morning,
summer, winter, wet or dry, she’d shout out,
down Smallthorne –  never spent a night away
from 4, Wharf Street; two up, two down, near where
they piled the coal from Biddulph, Bellerton and Sneyd,–

She who read nothing but the Evening Sentinel’s
Births, Marriages and Deaths, and then spelled
out only names she’d called out once at play
in the Board School yard, or some shared back entry
Bourne, Mountford, Holdcroft, Goodwin, and so on

village names which, come upon today,
still rouse in my ear that hoarse, loud voice
the slow, rising wheeze of her fat laughter –
and take me with her down Smallthorne and into
Swettenham’s grocers – sawdust thick on the floor,

(she buys her cheese and bacon there) past
Graham’s – chemists, right opposite the black
parish church – (she goes there twice on Sundays)
and into Oddies – where she might leave Harold’s
work boots, or pick up her own Mary Janes

yes, that delicious leather odour, then trailing her
outside where she’ll run into Ethel Dabbs (dressmaker)
or Sally Lees (as was),  me that small girl,
all fidgety again, while Auntie Maud’s well away
And sweaty from steep Smallthorne bank;

once home, all out of puff she’ll say, but soon
be bawling Lizzie, Lizzie, over our back wall,
for her the daily flow of gossip lapping
round her village entirely invigorating – life itself,
and how little spite there seemed

how it was said, she’d answer any knocking,
day or night; ham hands deft enough for setting
tumbled limbs to rights, thick fingers apt for

wringing out a cloth to give a cooling skin one last
respectful washing down – just getting on

with the task of tidying, giving a good airing
to some frowsy little room, opening a window
onto some plain brick street, always known
like she knew any of the streets down
Smallthorne – just like she knew her own.

 

*Image by Bill Gracey

” Image by Thomas Hawk

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