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. (more…)
Aged 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 industrial 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.
Lemn 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.
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.
To paraphrase an old REM song, “It’s the end of work as we know it. But I feel fine.” In the not-too-distant future, this will be the end game for politicians. Although there is a continuance of, and even in the case of President Agent Orange, a revival of the policy of creating more jobs, the reality is that under the current capitalist trajectory, there aren’t enough to go round. We are already seeing it with the rise in automation and the precariat and gig economy; people are scraping around for part-time jobs that are unsustainable economically. Politicians will have to find ways of keeping people happy (however that is defined) outside of work.
Some commentators are beginning to write about the post-work economy and how today’s politicians are wrong in their promise to create more jobs. In a provocative essay, “Fuck Work!” the historian James Livingston claims that the belief in work as a central factor of what it means to be human, “has become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.” Similarly, Yuvi Noah Hariri describes this situation in a more apocalyptic fashion, “The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose.”
The poem, The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand by Fred Voss, laments the state of the capitalist economy at a place he has worked for over thirty years; even though “it’s a pretty good job we have /considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories /in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker /but paradise? /and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 / hours inside tin walls /as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian / beaches /and billionaires raise martini glasses.” But in response to an ironic comment (“Another day in paradise,”) from a workmate, he asks the question: “why not a job /joyous as one of these poems I write /a job where each turn of a wrench /each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each /drop of sweat /rolling down my back because the world has woken up and /stopped worshiping money.” Everyone needs a sense of worth, even in a mundane job, where they don’t feel exploited and undervalued. For as Fred beautifully writes, [there is] “nothing more noble /than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson /reaching for the moon and men /dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their /machines /like the sun /couldn’t rise /without them.” The challenge now is create a sense of this nobility both inside and outside the workplace.
38 years ago Fred Voss walked into a steel mill and put on a hardhat and picked up a torch and a wrench and then a pen to write of souls sold in the job market, lives fed into time clocks, men owned and ordered like they were hardly men at all, by bosses and owners too good to shoulder a load or grab a pickaxe, as the earth is covered with concrete and the trees and tigers die. Fred Voss looks for the day when all this will be changed when women and men with dirt on their hands and gold in their souls will no longer be treated like children but given the power and respect the true makers of this world deserve. Voss has published three books of poems with Bloodaxe: Goodstone(1991), Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls (1998) and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods (2009).
The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand
“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time
clock and the sun
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10
hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each
drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and
stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and
Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through
steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their
like the sun
At the birth of my first son, after a somewhat traumatic first week of his life, my father said to me, in his dry wit, “You’ve a lifetime of worry ahead of you. When you’re 80 and he’s 50, you’ll still feel the same.” Now my father is in his 80s, for me the worry works both ways, to my teenage sons as well as my parents. The greatest parental experience I have had is becoming a stay-at-home/househusband/underling of my two sons some eight years ago. I was brought front stage on the gender divide of parenting; evidenced at first hand the plates mothers are juggling, as many of my new plates smashed on the floor.
The fluidity of parental roles is more dilute than it has ever been. This is most certainly a good thing, but it also leads to uncertainty as to the gender roles each partner should play, mainly because the ‘economics’ are still paramount, especially when women continue to be discriminated against.
After the Second World War (up until Thatcher), there was a general consensus across political parties as to the basic tenets of the country’s objectives for its citizens, one of which was full employment – a job for life. The first bricks were taken out of this wall during the 1980s, and those men, now well into their seventies and eigthies, were being made redundant some ten or more years before pensionable age.
My father was one of them, and so was David Cooke’s, whose father opted for retirement in his very early fifties, and is the subject of his poem, “Work”. His father was “a ‘man’s man’ my mother said, who needed/a joke to keep him going, and something to get him up in the morning besides/a late stroll to place his bets at Coral.” As a young son or daughter, the roles of your parents are defined by their actions; of what they do, and in them days it was the father who was out all day at work. So when he is made redundant, he is lost. “I’d learn that no one’s indispensable./So after he’d botched a shed, dug the pond/and built a rockery, the time was ripe/for change.” They had worked all their lives and didn’t want to lay fallow on the dole. My own father went on to do different jobs, as did David’s who “With a clapped-out van and a mate,/he started again on small extensions.”
How can you have a shadow without the subject? The picture (right) is the shadow of a Japanese guard taken by Matsumoto Eichii only a few weeks after the bombing of Nagasaki. The image is the burned-in imprint of the man with his ladder and sword at his side. We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and it is images such as these that remind us of such horrors.
The photograph of the soldier was part of an amazing exhibition, Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate Modern in London last year. I was fortunate enough to be on a poetry course run by Pascale Petit at the gallery that used the images from the exhibition, to write poems. Many great poets have drawn on classic paintings for their poetry; Pascale herself drew on the life and work of Frida Kahlo in her TS Eliot shortlisted collection, What the Water Gave Me.
Anthony Costello has taken this approach in his poem Work, which is inspired by Ford Maddox Brown’s painting. The pre-Raphaelite Brown was fascinated by the social make up of Victorian London, with the noble ‘navvies’ (“like my labouring Irish ancestors/amongst the soil, shovels and lime”), the orphaned children and poorest (“flophouse inmates, bouncers, ragamuffin children”), and upper classes (“the gentlemen-flaneurs,/the yellow waistcoats and red bonnet Gentry”). In a single painting, a single poem, we have the Victorian system of work and hierarchy – ‘a place for everyone, and everyone in their place’. (more…)
As part of this project I seem to be developing, I will be giving a paper at the Institute of English Studies conference: “New to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry” on March 13th (come along). I am on a panel entitled Promoting an Inclusive Poetics (I should be careful what I wish for). So as part of developing the paper, I thought I better get to know who the ‘Generation’ poets are.
In line with my belief that all poets have written a poem of working class lives, I am going through the poems (at least the ones that are available online at this stage) of each Generation poet to find out if there is any truth to my belief. So this first instalment is a selection from the 1994 ‘New’ Generation – I have looked at eleven of them so far, there are others such as Don Paterson and Kathleen Jamie I know I will find poems from, but there are still a few that I haven’t found one for (e.g. Glyn Maxwell, Lavinia Greenlaw), though I haven’t lost hope.
Moniza Alvi: The Country at My Shoulder is about Moniza’s country of origin, Pakistan, the poverty and gender divide there and how it weighs heavily on her identity.
‘the women stone-breakers chip away/at boulders, dirt on their bright hems./They await the men and the trucks….I try to shake the dust from the country,/smooth it with my hands.’
Simon Armitage: Clown Punk is very much a poem about identity, of how for some it changes, whereas others may believe it remains the same as exemplified in fading tattoos.
‘don’t laugh: every pixel of that man’s skin,/is shot through with indelible ink;/as he steps out at the traffic lights/think what he’ll look like in thirty years time.’ (more…)