A Collier’s Life by Steve Xerri

I have often said on this site that it is about the poems, less about the poets in terms of their social standing. In the readings I’ve done this year, I’ve met many people from different class backgrounds/foregrounds. I recently spoke with someone who had the least working class accent you will hear (think a notch or two down from William Rees MUG); yet, on talking with them, they spoke of their grandfather who had fought in the first world war, survived and went to work in the factories. I won’t go into accent as an indicator of class here, but there is sometimes a lineage from ‘Eee-by-gum’, to ‘Oh-Golly-Gosh’ (forgive the caricature) within a family.

working class grandadI think in general, for those whose families have been in the UK for the past hundred years or so, you often don’t have to jump too far back to find a working class parent, or more likely grandparent. I hear it more than most in the context of Proletarian Poetry, but if you talk to someone long enough about their family history, it’s rare not to find a working class family member. One of the indications of this shift in ‘category’ is when someone says, I was the first person in my family to go to University; and although I personally don’t believe that makes you middle class, it does show that opportunities have widened somewhat.

s_xerriOn that note of who you are, I don’t know the class of our poet today, Steve Xerri, but quite clearly in his poem ‘A Collier’s Life’, there is the story of a working class grandparent. ‘In the sweep of his cap lamp,/ air glinting with particles,/ men’s faces caked black/ but for eyes and teeth.’ This was on his first day down the pit; one of hundreds more. ‘Thousandth day, days/ unnumbered: the steady seep/ of crystalline dust locks/ the recoil of his lungs.’ As the last poem by John Duffy showed, many of these men never made it into old age. Our protagonist lived long enough to be a grandfather, but at great cost to his health. ‘Grandad sitting outside/ under the flowering/ cherry, spitting black/ into his handkerchief,’.

Our working class parents or grandparents, who found themselves in the factories and shipyards, down pits, or on the buildings, did so not only to feed and house their family, but to make sure they gave us a better life than they had. However, in these late days of capitalism, it seems that such hope of advancement is on hold at the moment, if not in reverse.


Steve Xerri has been a teacher, musician, illustrator, digital imaging trainer and web designer but now concentrates on writing poetry and making pottery. Recently published in Acumen, Amaryllis, Brittle Star, Clear Poetry, Envoi, Ink Sweat & Tears, Stride Magazine, The Interpreter’s House and The Poetry Shed. He has a poem forthcoming in Cinnamon Press’s Wheel of the Year anthology. He won the title of Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year 2017, with two poems included in the Festival’s Anthology.


 A Collier’s Life

First day: jaw braced
against fear, he rides the cage
rattling down through dark
to the sloped pit floor.

In the sweep of his cap lamp,
air glinting with particles,
men’s faces caked black
but for eyes and teeth.

Second day: he drops
the contents of his snap tin,
feels soused in filth,
spends the day in hunger.

Digging, he pictures
thrushes half a mile
above his head, tugging
worms out of the turf.

Third day: sees a fern-form
perfect in the coalface
uncovered by one pick-stroke,
demolished by the next.

Tenth day – hundredth
day: when the seam runs
thin, he has to hew it out
stooping till shift’s end.

One time, nothing clean
to hand, he soothes a mate’s
frantic pain by tonguing
his eyeball free of grit.

Another time, along the shaft
he hears the loosened rock-
roof roar down to smash
his cousin’s backbone.

Thousandth day, days
unnumbered : the steady seep
of crystalline dust locks
the recoil of his lungs.

Grandad sitting outside
under the flowering
cherry, spitting black
into his handkerchief,

watches the bairns
at their play, filling
little buckets with falls
of pale pink petals.


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