gender

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.

 

Like Mother by Nadia Drews

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Image by G Travels

We are coming to the end of the school year; a year full of turmoil instilled by a Government who feels it needs to do more than tinker with the education of our children, treating them more like guinea pigs in an ideological battle to send us back to Victorian times. Both education Secretaries (Gove and now Morgan), seem to want a war with teachers with the proposed imposition of academy status for all schools (thankfully withdrawn), new SATs for Year 6 students, and the madness of testing those under the grand old age of seven.

Governments still struggle with mass education; with classes of upwards of thirty children, herded together like cattle despite their different needs and abilities and family circumstance, all with the sole intention of getting them to pass a minimum of five GCSEs. I know from personal experience with my son that this can be really damaging to their future; that if they don’t attain these grades they feel like a failure. It drains the appetite of learning right out of them. All done without the seeming understanding of both what the teachers need and what therefore is good for the children.

20160707_020819So, what then of the children both in school and then when they leave. Nadia Drew’s poem, “Like Mother,” shows us the variety of characters that can make up a class. “The flimsy, thin, sterling silver skin stinging slaps/The back of the class chatting up robbing from the stock cupboard smothered laughs/Julie, longing lashes, soft, leather wrapped in Frank/Debbie, bitty little. Biting lippy, outside the chippy/Gob full of fizz bomber jacketed hands jammed in high/Up in arms, sticking out like chicken wings, flapping/Clucking fuck this and fuck that.” Nadia poem looks at this from the perspective of a young woman’s rite of passage.

Having two sons of my own, I have felt that society is more set up for young boys; team sports such as football, rugby and cricket, and then when older the pubs with their own teams, are gendered to accommodate male activities and leisure. There is far less opportunity for girls and young women, “uniformly/Stubby short to skinny strip/Hanging from the tide marked neck/Now noosed round a reflection in a dressing table mirror/A face painted with disgrace/With no-one waiting till you washed it off/Full term came and went for some /An unmarked summer break becoming an endless spiral-bound roundabout/A mid-afternoon, windblown, swinging groan/With no bell ringing time to go home.” And then the child becomes a young adult, out of their teens and into a great open space of uncertainty. It is meant to be a time to be free to achieve those goals that were drummed into them.

Up to twelve years in an institution, getting them ready to earn and contribute, whether to parents with whom they still live because there is little affordable housing, or to society through paying taxes. But sadly, this is not for all. For example, not everyone can go to University, although the political mantra and investment has always been that this is what you should be striving for; the nobility of social mobility. “All your mates had to stay in evenings/Facing days framed by pram handles/And pacing familiar avenues/Dangling struggling little girls/Heavy with hope from the hip/Where you all used to stand about strangling laughs/Yanking tangles, swapping bangles.“

Everybody can be somebody’, is the Adidas-like mantra of my son’s school; well it all depends on how you define and measure what a ‘somebody’ is and whether you go on to repeat the life of another, ‘Like Mother’.

 

Nadia Drews was born in San Francisco and brought up in Greater Manchester. A Socialist mother with a suitcase of vinyl recordings by Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf and a well-earned Young Democrats badge led her to revolutionary politics and eventually to sing and write songs about changing the world first in the bedroom and then on stage. The stories of working class lives in the songs grew into plays and she left Manchester having written and co-produced ‘I Love Vinegar Vera (What Becomes of the Brokenhearted)’ based on the local legend of a woman that each Lancashire town seemed to have. Having moved closer to family roots in the East End of London in 2011 she began to perform poetry at the Poetry Cafe’s Poetry Unplugged night and then to become a Farrago Poetry Slam champion. Through this she has been able to start to find the ranting voice she was unable to achieve in the 80s. Thirty years of repressed rhymes mean she writes long poems…but she reads them fast.

 

Like Mother

Settle down, bottom set, poor concentration, what do you expect?
Failed tests, predictable results, staying behind red lines
Life viewed through windows in sticks, drizzling with tears of spilling piss
Clinging like dribble to chins of grizzling kids, you didn’t do what the other girls did
Tossed like crossings out on screwed up scraps
The Battersbys and the Bickerstaffes

The flimsy, thin, sterling silver skin stinging slaps
The back of the class chatting up robbing from the stock cupboard smothered laughs
Julie, longing lashes, soft, leather wrapped in Frank
Debbie, bitty little. Biting lippy, outside the chippy
Gob full of fizz bomber jacketed hands jammed in high
Up in arms, sticking out like chicken wings, flapping
Clucking fuck this and fuck that
Flicking V’s, not free to fly
Leanne, lanky, shrieking streak of ‘Miss!’
Witty, eyeing, disguised lined rims hidden behind
Sharp as a knife flicked fringe
Shading every ‘shameful’ cringe

All subjects of so much rigid invigilation
Tiddy-tipped, spit slippy, wetly dreamt of unplanned examination
Cupped like slurped chipped china cups spilled in saucers of your warmth
Held in belched petrol smells, cider swilled with fry –ups
Eyeing up, weighing out, measured in points for their pleasure
Stiff inches of sin counting you on scribbling fingers
Summing you up, in and out scratching walls
Hurtful mis-spelt spurting words
Running out and leaving
Stale-tasting tell-tale stained pockets of cock-eyed explanations

After all those years of teaching you lessons
Never reading your need to know
NO  …..NO…..NO
Minus one of them speccy gets noticed you go
Woe betide you’d ever forget it-they checked, uniformly
Stubby short to skinny strip
Hanging from the tide marked neck
Now noosed round a reflection in a dressing table mirror
A face painted with disgrace
With no-one waiting till you washed it off

Full term came and went for some
An unmarked summer break becoming an endless spiral-bound roundabout
A mid-afternoon, windblown, swinging groan
With no bell ringing time to go home
Down the dole to drum on doors hard
Then a card and a ticking clock
On the Verdigris, smocked copper bonnet, factory top
Making dull days, patinaed with wages
Catalogued to pay for life in reasonable instalments
24 or 36 weeks
Outfits in drips to disguise your defeat down the pub

Atmosphere thickly misted stinking with chart hits
Spewing what was up supped in the gutter
Up against a throbbing, glugging fug
Filling up belly-aching gaps, swallowing laughs, tapping off happiness
Getting ribbed, coins banged in avoiding trouble
Chasing, knocking back, seeing double

Others would try to get in the club
The price was too high for you to pay
And you were too old to run away again
All your mates had to stay in evenings
Facing days framed by pram handles
And pacing familiar avenues
Dangling struggling little girls
Heavy with hope from the hip
Where you all used to stand about strangling laughs
Yanking tangles, swapping bangles
Mixed up ten pence teeth sticking sweet dreams
Twisted in bags ripped from string
Escaping tear away paper thin lips
Skinned suckling pale pink dissolving flying saucers
Sore ochre cracked with sleeping smiles inside
That mithered mothers now bribe their daughters with
Outside Claire’s shop beyond the school gates when you were meant to stop

You paid your debts to Great Universal
Ticking the box to say you would no longer like to be a representative
And walked out in a patent leather patiently anticipated excellent value for you shoe
Through the front door this time
With your mum’s packed away sadness and matching set of unused suitcases for all occasions
Full of qualifications to be somewhere else
And you slipped into the empty seat on the empty bus
Like a popped in pear drop from a shared quarter
Passed between mother and daughter sat on the sofa staring at the blaring telly
Yelling jokes at soaps her stroking your hair and hoping.

November Review – From Nana’s Luck to The Last Gang in Town?

It’s been a great second month for Proletarian Poetry (I would give you the stats but that’s a bit too geeky. I am however, warming my hands over them now).

I have got to know some great poets who have kindly agreed to have their poems featured on the site. As I’ve said before, in terms of working class lives, this is about the poems not the poets; I secretly believe that all poets have written a working class poem, they just don’t know it yet – it’s a class consciousness problem 🙂 Also as I write this, I am reminded how many of the poets I have seen read this month; all are great performers in their own right and way – you really can’t beat live poetry. For example, on Saturday I was at The Shuffle where two featured poets on PP, Inua Ellams and Karen McCarthy Woolf read alongside, Tom Chivers, Holly Corfield Carr, Gale Burns, and Harry Mann. The theme was the environment and there were a great range of poems on the subject.

This month’s poems have covered a number of themes to do with: family, gender, identity, racism, urban life, work and industry, food, and music (got to have the music). There are mothers, fathers, grandparents, butchers, assembly line workers, brass bands, activists, priests, loan sharks, and (to use the title of Inua Ellams’ poem) Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves. (more…)

The Pay Poke by Owen Gallagher

Owen Gallagher PicEvery Thursday in the bookies, men would rush in after four o’clock, look up at the board of an upcoming race and the prices of the horses, quickly scribble something on a betting slip and hand it over to me. As I looked at the bet to see if I needed to lay it off, I would hear the crackle of cellophane and the tear of an envelope. The man’s wage packet. His ‘pay poke’. Opened in front of me instead of his wife. They would often go home with an empty envelope.

Owen Gallagher takes the ‘pay poke’ and writes from the perspective of a son who has to deal with the death of his father and the payments to be made from his father’s last wage packet: to the man from the loan company and the Priest, who was paid in silver and made them ‘feel special when he gave the house/a blessing, called each of us by our name.’ Thereafter there is a change in roles where the ‘mother became the man‘ and ‘now I set aside the money‘.

This is a rights of passage poem; (more…)