‘Up and Away’ and ‘Full Strength’ by John Duffy

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.

tumblr_mxvel4FAtz1qzh561o4_250On 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.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_5c0eJohn 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,
a procession,
the men trying not to bend.

Full strength
(for David)

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.

Dr Lee and the Apple Tree/Silencing Big Ben by Katherine Lockton

lemn sissay christmas dinnersWhat is a working class Christmas? It is two hundred homeless people spending the day in Euston train station, out of the cold and being fed. It is the Christmas Dinner’s Project founded by the poet Lemn Sissay, which provides dinners for those aged 18-25 leaving care. It is organisations like Crisis, the Quakers, the Sally Army, supporting the homeless. There are a whole host of volunteering initiatives on the day. Christmas is about not forgetting those more in need than ourselves, whether they are Christian or not and whatever class and/or religion you may be. And yes, it is the escape from work (not from family though), over-indulging, getting ratted, forgetting what Boxing Day is really about & having a punch up instead, the list I am sure is endless on depending on your inclinations. (more…)

Saving for the Hamper by Ali Jones

oxfam coop stampsWhen I was young, my mum used to collect stamps. We had a Co-op on the corner. I remember she would come home with the shopping and blue stamps, letting me stick them in to slowly fill the pages until you had enough for a dividend (the books are low value collector’s items these days). The Co-op’s stamps were a response to their competitors’ schemes, especially the catch-all Green Shield stamps, which were very popular during the 1960s and 70s. Its founder, Richard Tompkins went on to set up Argos. These were the precursor to modern-day loyalty cards that now involve you giving them information about your habits through your purchases thereby capturing your ‘loyalty’.

The stamps were first introduced in the United States towards the end of the 19th century; given to customers who paid in cash as opposed to credit. There are though other schemes, especially saving for Christmas, which is implied in Alison Jones’ poem, “Saving for the Hamper”: “There was more to it than I thought, the pulling together Profile Picof pennies/ in a small leather purse and counting them when no one was looking,/ the card left face down on the kitchen table, in anticipation of a stamp.” These schemes were/are targeted at those who may not have bank accounts, or a way in which they have enough extra money at the beginning of December. This was the case for the grandmother in this poem, “I did not see the strange woman/ who woke in the dark and went digging through her pockets,/ knowing she would find nothing more than ghosts and prayers.” The schemes are now fairly widespread, the latest being Toys R Us; this despite a number going bust, sometimes before the Xmas return to its customers, such as Farepak where people tried for years to get their money back without success. Pleasures change, whether it be a computer game, or as in our poem, “The sweetness of boxed dates was as surprising as summer rain,/ and now I know that hope was a wellspring beneath the ground.” Merry Christmas everyone, whatever your faith or time of the year it may be, at least when it comes to the concerns of capitalism.


Ali Jones is a teacher, and writer, living in Oxford, England. She holds an MA in English, focused on poetry in domestic spaces and has written poetry in a variety of forms for many years. She is a mother of three. She is interested in the relationships between place and personal, in terms of ancestry, the everyday, geology, folk lore and fairy tales.  Her work has appeared in Fire, Poetry Rivals Spoken Word Anthology, Strange Poetry, Ink Sweat and Tears, Snakeskin Poetry, Atrium, Picaroon Poetry, Mother’s Milk Books, The Lake Magazine, Breastfeeding Matters, Breastfeeding Today and Green Parent magazine. She writes a regular column for Breastfeeding Matters Magazine, and blogs for The Motherload. She was the winner of the Green Parent Writing Prize in 2016, the runner up for the Mother’s Milk prize for prose in 2016, and has also written for The Guardian. Her poetry pamphlets, Heartwood and Omega are forthcoming with Indigo Dreams press in 2018.


 Saving for the Hamper

There was more to it than I thought, the pulling together of pennies
in a small leather purse and counting them when no one was looking,

the card left face down on the kitchen table, in anticipation of a stamp.
There’s more to making a celebration than I ever expected,

the small processes of finding one thing to set against another
one thing to leave out, to make do without. The chill of the larder,

the echoes in the meat safe that I did not hear, stilted to lift it
from the reachings of hungry mice. I did not see the strange woman

who woke in the dark and went digging through her pockets,
knowing she would find nothing more than ghosts and prayers.

It was always better than I hoped, the old need keeping us strong,
the anticipation of cardboard boxes and shredded newspaper,

spam, Dundee cake, jellied fruits, Baxter’s soup and beetroot relish,
My grandmother’s cooking always tasted the best. At those times,

I think we had something else with us all along, in the way she worked
hour after hour, back bent beneath the heat, drifting between

house and garden, bringing everything in, currants and plums,
potatoes and peas, turning the soil, not a scrap wasted, ever.

The sweetness of boxed dates was as surprising as summer rain,
and now I know that hope was a wellspring beneath the ground,

as she worked, letting things in, immersed in the purr of the wireless,
bleeding carols through the air, making things possible, gathering us in.