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.


St Fergus Gran by Beth McDonough


Image by Margaret Calvert

We are living in a time of shifting demographics, which has the potential for pitting the young and old against one another. Not in a face-to-face sense, but in the way policy makers shift their thinking to ‘balance the books’. Just recently, in the UK the Work and Pensions Committee has recommended an end to the ‘triple lock’ of state pension payments that sees them increase according to three factors (i.e. whatever is highest in terms of average earnings, consumer price index, or 2.5%). There is a fear that as people live longer we won’t be able afford the state pension in its current form. This is compounded by the roll back in salary-linked company pensions. The elderly then are seen to be costing ‘us’, as though ‘we’ are the ones paying for their inactivity.

This is dangerous and not based on fact. You walk around during the working week and see how many grandparents are picking up their grandchildren from school; or looking after pre-schoolers all day whilst their own children are working. It is estimated that grandparents contribute £7 billion free childcare each year. They are contributing a similar amount to help fund their grandchild’s education. But it is also wrong to assume that they are all wealthy; one in seven pensioners live in poverty and a further 1.2 million live just above that line.

beth-mcdThis sets aside the history they have lived through and the people they became because of it; a World War to monumental technological change from the TV to virtual reality. They have so many stories to tell and be told, and Beth McDonough’s eponymous poem ‘St Fergus Gran’ does just that. “Great Gran lived in weighty old pennies, dropped/from bonehard hands to my fat-cup palm/just before we’d journey west.” Like many stories, hers is one that is handed down the generations, “I never knew of her second sight/All those deaths, and how she kent/her brother lived, when the telegram said not.” Their lives weren’t a straightforward one of getting married and having children; war put pay to that. “I met the East End Glasgow lad she’d/fostered in the war, with all his tricks, his walk/to her from the west coast up to Buchan.” Here Beth tells us a little more about the poem:

“Although my poems are often partly autobiographical, they are rarely so openly so. This one arrived that way. I suspect my Dad would have problems with it, as for his Scots generation there is still a perceived stigma. For my part, I am in awe of my Great Gran – a couthy and brave woman. The knowledge of her  situation, so much later, only increased my respect. The two sisters brought up their families a few miles apart in rural Aberdeenshire, where doubtless no secret about my Grandfather’s paternity could be kept. I feel a certain indebtedness to Norman MacCaig’s Aunt Julia, and yes there are “so many questions/unanswered” and in St Fergus Gran’s case, I mourn too that I will never really know those answers in her beautiful Doric, so specific to that area.”


Beth McDonough trained in Silversmithing at GSA, completing her M.Litt at Dundee University. Writer in Residence at Dundee Contemporary Arts 2014-16, her poetry appears in Gutter, The Interpreter’s House and Antiphon and elsewhere and her reviews in DURA. She has a background in teacher trade union activism and she is involved in various disability-related groups. Handfast, her pamphlet with Ruth Aylett (Mother’s Milk, May 2016) charts family experiences – Aylett’s of dementia and McDonough’s of autism.


St Fergus Gran

Great Gran lived in weighty old pennies, dropped
from bonehard hands to my fat-cup palm
just before we’d journey west. She was coiled
inky hair, all starling eyes, a bent body leant
on a wooden frame. She lived till I was twelve.

I never knew of her second sight.
All those deaths, and how she kent
her brother lived, when the telegram said not.
She dreamed birds and hearts. It took
my first adult death for Dad to tell me this.

What she could not see, was how
the man who left her pregnant was to wed
her sister in their kirk before
their son was born. It took
his Father’s death for Dad to tell me this.

I met the East End Glasgow lad she’d
fostered in the war, with all his tricks, his walk
to her from the west coast up to Buchan. I loved
his anarchy on buses to the Broch. It took
his Mother’s death for Dad to tell me this.

Today, I asked my Dad about my Great-Gran’s
Christian name. He can recite the cottage signs,
say all those burns that feed the Ythan, but
he cannot tell me this. They had
no need to know her name. She was just
St Fergus Gran.