Month: June 2017

Spark Catchers by Lemn Sissay

gec-sponstAged sixteen, in my first (and only) year, as an apprentice at the General Electric Company, I went round the factory and sat with various workers for half a day each, to get to know what they did. One woman’s job involved, picking up a piece of component, putting it on small press, then pulling a lever to fit it. It took her less than two seconds to do one. When she had done about five, she said to me, “that’s it, love. That’s what I do.” This left ten seconds less than four hours to spend together, in which we had a good natter, and I learned a lot that had nothing to do with her job. Of course, it is only in looking back that I realised it was my first encounter in how society is diced and sliced in terms of gender and work, with the women as the army corps and the men as corporals (charge hands), sergeants (foreman), captains (manager), etc..

One of the more recent depictions of such workplace divisions and discrimination came with the film Made in Dagenham about Ford sewing machinists’ strike for equal pay. However, today’s poem about the Bow Matchwomen’s Strike, goes back nearly a hundred years before that, to the much-mythologised East London of the late 1880s and the small=BRYANT-Strike-A-Light1_art_fullindustrial febrile temperature rising across the country at that time (the poet Anna Robinson previously wrote about an aspect of this on the site, in her poems Portraits of Women, East London 1888). This coming Saturday (July 1st), there is the annual all-day Festival in celebration of the women’s strike. The historian Louise Raw, in her book “Striking A Light: the Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in History”, provides a fascinating account of the strike that rewrites the previous more clichéd and partronising accounts that argued the women were influenced/led by ‘outside forces’. You can read a good review of the book here.

lemnsissay-greenwichlibrarywaterstones-gll-talking-booksLemn Sissay’s poem, “Spark Catchers”, is a tribute to the Matchwomen and is a physical landmark at the Olympic Park where the factory was located. The poem is also an inspiration for an upcoming musical piece composed by Hannah Kendall and performed by the UK’s first black and ethnic minority orchestra, Chineke, at the BBC Proms this

Lemn Sissay is author of a series of collections of poetry. His sculpture poem Gilt of Cain was unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu. He has written plays for stage and BBC radio. He describes dawn in one tweet every day. One Morning Tweet Became an award winning building MVMNT commissioned by Cathedral group designed and built by Supergroup’s  Morag Myerscough.

Spark Catchers

Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow
Where shoals of sirens work by way of the waves.
At the fire factory the fortress of flames

In tidal shifts East London Lampades made
Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do
And the ne’er-do-well to do alike. Strike.

The greatest threat to their lives was
The sulferuous spite filled spit of diablo
The molten madness of a spark

They became spark catchers and on the word “strike”
a parched arched woman would dive
With hand outstretched to catch the light.

And Land like a crouching tiger with fist high
Holding the malevolent flare tight
‘til it became an ash dot in the palm. Strike.

The women applauded the magnificent grace
The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air
The precision, perfection and the peace.

Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow
In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon
They practised Spark Catching.

“The fist the earth the spark it’s core
The fist the body the spark it’s heart”
The Matchmakers march. Strike.

Lampades The Torch bearers
The Catchers of light.
Sparks fly Matchmakers strike.


this is not your beautiful game by ben banyard

england under 20

future stars?

This past Sunday (June 11th) saw the greatest achievement in English football for 51 years. The Under-20s won their World Cup in South Korea, beating such senior giants as Argentina and Italy, but also less renowned countries like Guinea and Venezuela on the way. Talk (prematurely of course) is now whether they can go on and do the same for the senior team in Qatar 2022. The team is made up of players on the books of top Premier League clubs, but hardly any have played more than a handful of games for the first team. They play their games at lower league grounds, such as Oldham and Rochdale, which I think is good, as it brings international level games to a wider audience and at lower prices.

Football, as we have seen previously on this site with Rishi Dastidar’s poem, “We are Premier League”, is dominated by big money, whether it be players’ wages, ticket prices, or television rights and subscriptions. But as with many sports, top success is underpinned by the misnomer of non-league football, which itself starts with youth leagues, where parents volunteer for the child’s team as manager, trainer, team secretary, running the line, or putting up the nets (the latter two were my job, and at 5ft 7in, the crossbar was out of reach).

Support for their local teams is part and parcel of this territory. It is there that I go by the ‘blighted by birth or where you live’ rule when it comes to supporting a team – there is no pick and mix (I was born in Coventry for the sins of my parents). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t contradict that rule by making your children support the god forsaken team you were born from.

Ben BanyardBen Banyard’s poem ‘This is Not Your Beautiful Game’ nicely captures the reality and sometime excitement of such wind-blown support, “This is not Wembley or the Emirates./We’re broken cement terraces, rusting corrugated sheds,/remnants of barbed wire, crackling tannoy.” You don’t get prawn sandwiches here (not that you would want them), it’s “pies described only as ‘meat’,/cups of Bovril, instant coffee, stewed tea.” But out of such masochistic adversity, comes great strength, as well as pride. “Little boys who support our club learn early/how to handle defeat and disappointment…./We are the English dream, the proud underdog/twitching hind legs in its sleep.” It is never too late for some players’ dreams; many have risen out of the lower ranks, to play in the Premier League, like Chris Smalling, Charlie Austin, Jimmy Bullard, Troy Deeney, and Jamie Vardy. And of course not forgetting Coventry’s own Trevor Peake, who at the age of 26 was bought from Lincoln City and was part of the 1987 FA Cup winning side.

[NB: for one time only, I am allowing a Birmingham fan to grace the pitch of Proletarian Poetry. There are times (and poetry is one of them), when the game must trump the tribalism – aka pride before a fall. But don’t tell any Cov fans]

Ben Banyard grew up in Solihull but has lived in the West Country since the mid-90s. His poems have appeared widely in the likes of The Interpreter’s House, And Other Poems, Under the Radar and Popshot. Ben’s pamphlet, Communing, was published by Indigo Dreams in 2016 and his first full collection, We Are All Lucky, is due out from the same press in 2018. He edits Clear Poetry and blogs at

This is Not Your Beautiful Game

This is not Lionel Messi, balletic, mercurial.
We have a journeyman striker with a broken nose
no pace, poor finishing, very right-footed.

This is not Wembley or the Emirates.
We’re broken cement terraces, rusting corrugated sheds,
remnants of barbed wire, crackling tannoy.

Here, the captain winning the toss
chooses to kick uphill or down
considers which half his keeper will stand in mud.

We have pies described only as ‘meat’,
cups of Bovril, instant coffee, stewed tea.

Our shirts feature the logo of a local scaffolding firm,
can’t be found in JD Sports.

Don’t tell us about football’s grass roots.
We don’t worry that all of this must seem small-fry,
that our team comprises keen kids and sore old pros.

Little boys who support our club learn early
how to handle defeat and disappointment,
won’t ever see us on Match of the Day.

We are the English dream, the proud underdog
twitching hind legs in its sleep,
tapping in a last-minute equaliser as the rain
knifes down on tonight’s attendance: 1,026 souls.