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.
The Coalmen by Patrick Barron
Readers of this blog are well aware of the impact Thatcher’s policies had on the coal mining industry during the 1980s. There have been a number of poems addressing the experience faced by the miners in their fight to secure the livelihoods. However, the impact was much wider than just those working at the coalface (sic). Besides the local shops gaining from a miner’s income, there were also those who delivered the coal – the coal merchants.
Like many in the industry this was hard work, and given the fact it was most needed in winter, the delivery of coal was often freezing work. Delivery was the end point, there was much work to get the coal into the sacks; heavy shovelling and when frozen, the coal would come in great lumps that needed separating. Horse and cart made way for trucks by the middle of the 20th century. The ‘coalies’ didn’t have a uniform as such, but there was a dress code as they were dealing with the general public. They would wear leather backed hats, to protect their shoulders and head; they also wore ‘spankers’, which were straps just above the knee to stop coal dust going up their legs.
Patrick Barron’s poem “The Coalmen” takes the point of view of a young child looking out their bedroom window at these black and grey men, carrying huge sacks weighing up to 50 kg, “as if they were carrying their own mothers across a river.” There is something of the mythical about these men, as though they were in disguise, as though they weren’t meant to be seen, shadows almost. (more…)
Barnsley Chop and Seams by Kay Buckley
I’ve moved us away from ‘that London’ and back up to the North of England for two poems that tell a story of the town of Barnsley, through its ‘chop’, and in ‘Seams’ that of Yorkshire more widely during the 1980s.
Like Roy Marshall’s poem, ‘Meat is Murder’, Kay Buckley’s description of the butcher’s in ‘Barnsley Chop‘ is visceral and time-bound; ‘Back in day, when meat came in brown paper,/the blood soaked right through‘, and ‘those rubbery links hung like fat lips/from uppercuts on S shaped metal hooks‘. The ‘Barnsley Chop’ is being prepared for a visit by the Prince of Wales and comes to symbolise that mix of ceremony and tradition with a down-to-earth truth to self. So the meal is served on best china and the chop has ‘more meat than you can eat’, as though setting up the Prince (who is no ‘trencherman’) for a fall; and then the Mayor, ‘the host, ex-workhouse and a big union man./He didn’t stand on ceremony‘ with his stern humour when telling the Prince, ‘“If tha’ don’t eat that, I’ll tell thee mother.”’ (more…)