One of the darker but also more playful songs by Tom Waits is “What’s he building in there?” where the narrator is essentially a nosy neighbour, who ponders on what a man can be doing in his house, simply because he ‘keeps himself to himself’. “He has subscriptions to those/ Magazines. He never/ waves when he goes by/ He’s hiding something from/ the rest of us. He’s all/ to himself.” There are many things we don’t know about people that I’m sure would surprise us. People aren’t all just work and telly and pub and match and gym and restaurant and work and etc., etc.. Many people have projects, and dare I say ‘hobbies’, that word which now seems to either appear old fashioned or derogatory – something people did before the Internet, before telly even, like stamp collecting or knitting; a recent evaluation of the writing centre Ty Newydd described the attendees of the courses are ‘retiring hobbyists’, which is both ageist and short-sighted. These are the things that keep people alive; we are told many times these days to keep our minds and bodies active to ward off the advancement of the ageing process, and the delights that can bring like Alzheimer’s or cancer.
But I also think that people are amazing in the projects they engage in. My son watches endless YouTube videos of everyday inventors – people who try to make their own telescope for example completely from scratch, where they even make the glass. Then when it comes to the working class, the notion that we are all hard workers without two pennies to rub together and therefore only have time to watch X-Factor meets Strictly, topped off with the icing from Bake Off cake, is a myth. This has been debunked by many writers over the years such as Ken Worple, with his first book ‘Dockers and Detectives’ about a writers’ group from Liverpool, and the work of Jonathan Rose and Richard Hoggart. There is a recently published memoir of a bodybuilder who secretly read Keats in the gym, hiding the book between the covers of Muscle & Fitness magazine.
Anna Saunders’ beautiful poem “Befriending the Butcher’, tells the story of a working class life that furthers this idea that you never know what a person might be. “He spent his days dressing flesh/ preparing Primal Cuts and his nights – carving wood,/ reading brick-heavy biographies of Larkin or Keats.” And what you start will carry you into later life, “There we sat, …./ on chairs as dark and immense as the Wagner/ which poured into the room,” So think again when you’re at the checkout, at the bar, chatting with the postman or the butcher, for you never know what they may be building when they get back home and hide themselves away in the attic or the shed. (more…)