Up to the age of fifteen, my aunt and uncle would come over on Christmas day with my two cousins. They would arrive mid-morning, and we’d open presents, and my Uncle would crack some jokes and be on his best behaviour. Then at midday, he and my father would go down the pub, and my mum and aunty would prepare the dinner (my dad had already cooked the Turkey – up at 5am, slow roasting it). Us kids would play in the front room, which mainly involved me (some eight years older than my cousins and sister) trying to stop them from breaking my Subbuteo players.
On returning from the pub, my Uncle would be a little worst-for-wear with the drink, and that’s when the fun would start. Sitting at the table, he would compliment my mum on the dinner, with lines like, ‘these parsnips are fucking lovely Gladys’ – us kids would giggle away, as my aunt tried to tame him – ‘James, no swearing at the table’. ‘Shall I wait till we go into the front room then?’ he replied winking at us. He’d go back to eating his dinner, and we watched and waited from him to forget my aunt’s instructions, and tell us stories of his time in Glasgow, his stay in Barlinnee Prison, and occasional fights in gangs growing up (although to be fair, my dad told us similar stories of his own exploits). And of course, such tales with replete with expletives as bastards, fucks, shits, etc., as my aunt gave up and just got on with her dinner. He was pure entertainment, without a smidgeon of malice, and plenty of roguishness that us kids were totally in awe of. He is still going, although his past has caught up on his health.
John Duffy’s poem, ‘Up and Away’ tells of such uncles, and their decline, and how we as nephews and nieces, look back at their special place in our childhood hearts ‘Uncles, those fabulous/ heroes, dwindled in strength,/ wit and story-telling/ into wee men with jabbing/ opinions, old jokes.’ But these men were also workers who built this country. ‘I dream: a vision of men,/ arms full of harvested stones,/ gathered, cleared, carried,/ put into walls, paths, altars,’ Then in John’s second poem, ‘Full Strength’, furthers this story in telling of a father, and the life such men led in the 1950s working and socialising. ‘He explained the work of casting,/ and how in Colville’s, he had fired/ explosive bolts at plates of steel,/ and sifted fragments that might still/ explode, or cut, or burn. He left/ that job. Full Strength was what he smoked,/ he let me sip dark stout, bitter taste/ for men.’ This was a time prior to the 1970s, and the rise of women in the workplace with the introduction of the Equal Pay Act and Sexual Discrimination Act of 1970 & 1975 respectively. But as John’s poems show, the men had worked in tough conditions before and after WW2, with many having to leave work or retire for health reasons, often dying in their sixties and seventies.
John Duffy is one of the founders of Huddersfield’s Albert Poets (now in its 25th year). He has retired from his varied careers as civil servant, social worker, childminder, community worker and bibliotherapist, and has run writing workshops with community groups across West Yorkshire. His most recent collections are Glamourie (Calder Valley Poetry) and The Edge of Seeing (High Window). Some of his poems are in Scots (traditional Lallans or Contemporary Glaswegian), but are largely intelligible to English audiences.
Up and away
Uncles, those fabulous
heroes, dwindled in strength,
wit and story-telling
into wee men with jabbing
opinions, old jokes. Now
I’ve grown up and away
I dream: a vision of men,
arms full of harvested stones,
gathered, cleared, carried,
put into walls, paths, altars,
stones traced with the knotwork
of our origins, milestones
from Rome, red sandstone,
cool granite, handfuls
of sea-stained marble, cobbles
from Causeyside Street,
the men trying not to bend.
My father made stones whistle,
skiting them across the flat
frozen loch, the whine of each
bounce tapering in the distance;
that was the fifties when spanners,
books, kettles, footballs disappeared
weekly into the throats of ostriches
in comics. By Parkhead Forge,
Guinness glass snug in its gullet,
the bird grinned at the zookeeper
on the high hoarding. Do they really
swallow things? He told me something.
Dark stripes like iron bars, a tiger
of stillness succeeded to this space
above the traffic, beside the huge
shed of hammers, chains, growling
furnace. This was the biggest place
I knew; it was where my father grew.
He explained the work of casting,
and how in Colville’s, he had fired
explosive bolts at plates of steel,
and sifted fragments that might still
explode, or cut, or burn. He left
that job. Full Strength was what he smoked,
he let me sip dark stout, bitter taste
for men. This year I will be fifty;
my son brings me a gift, a tin picture-
ostrich, keeper, hidden pint –
he has remembered me telling him
all this, when I stood in the street, light
shining from forge and tiger,
his strong hand to hold, the lurch
of trams taking the bend, whining
uphill. Today I throw a stone across ice,
it casts a deeper note than I remember,
drops in pitch with every bounce,
with every bounce.