cover size 210 x 148 mm (A5)
The TUC Working Party Report on the Arts (1976) is a curious mixture of good and
bad, of radical thinking and unquestioned assumptions. Given that, in its own
words, it was made up entirely of representatives of "those unions, twelve in
all, which have members working professionally in the Arts, education and the
mass media," it is perhaps not so surprising that at times it comes out with
statements like: "Also the job of supporting amateur activities is one for the
local authority since the Arts Council and regional Arts Associations should
only support professional artists." (p.19) But, for worker-writers struggling
with the ogres of the Arts Council, there are still a number of reasons for
believing that this particular pantomime horse has a role to play in a "happy
The report is, in an important sense, contradictory. "The working party sees the
need to popularise the Arts but does not believe that this will be achieved by
attempts to redistribute the already inadequate national resources available to
the established Arts. Only a substantial increase in national expenditure on the
Arts can lead to an increase in spending on regional, local and community based
Arts." (p.12). Understandably, the TUG does not want to be responsible for
promoting internecine struggles between street theatre and the Royal Shakespeare
Company. However, if it is all a matter of demanding more money for the Arts,
then there is the obvious danger that TUG policy on the Arts becomes reduced to
a campaign against the destructive policies of the present Government and for
the return of a Labour Government.
Now it is precisely the way in which it goes beyond such generalities which is
the most encouraging aspect of the report. If this were all it had to say, then
90% of it would be superfluous, but in fact there are some 40 pages of
interesting and specific insights.
Immediately following the passage previously quoted, the working party offers
"the view that when the Arts receive public subsidies they must do their utmost
to encourage the widest possible popular involvement in their work. No doubt
there are those in the 'Arts world' who are quite content for cultural
activities to continue as the preserve of a few. Their influence, and the
complacent attitudes which are a part and parcel of it, must be resisted."
Elsewhere (p.4) the working party has already argued that "if people are to
develop fully their mental and emotional capacities they must be able to both
appreciate a range of such activities and also be free to participate creatively
in these activities, since participation in the mastery of an artistic activity
brings insights and pleasure additional to that enjoyed by appreciation alone."
The working party has clearly seen beyond the vision of crumbs of "Culture"
being handed down from the high shelf to the waiting mouths of the uncultured
masses. Its main blind spot seems to be the assumption that "amateur" Arts are
somehow intrinsically local, while only "professional" Arts can be national in
scope. This is bound up with the uncritical acceptance of a term - "amateur"
-which is rooted in the class distinctions of a previous age, and which bears a
questionable relevance to the present-day realities of Sport and the Arts.
Worker-writers do not earn their living from writing, any more than Rugby League
players do. For upwards of forty hours a week, they are factory workers,
housewives, building workers, nurses, transport and office workers etc. But,
unlike Rugby League players, they do not tend to see their leisure-time activity
as divorced from their working lives. And this is a quality which the TUG must
value very highly, for it is a quality which will need to spread much more
widely through the trade union movement if we are to make any sense of the
demand for a reduced working week. Unless trade unionists come to place a higher
value on their leisure time - and start to fight for it - then the advent of
micro-technology is going to mean mass unemployment on an unprecedented scale
-and a working class divided down a line drawn between the factory gates and the
dole queues. This means, to my way of thinking, that any organisation, such as
the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, which is involving
large numbers of working people in this whole question of leisure, has to be
taken very seriously by the TUG as a whole.
The worker-writer movement was, of course, local in its beginnings (like most
things), but I can see no rational reason why it should be forced to remain so.
VOICES magazine, as a regular outlet for working-class creative writing, has
been national in scope for several years. Since forming a national federation
out of various local groups in 1976, the worker-writer movement has stimulated
the growth of many new workshop groups, as well as publishing last year, an
anthology called WRITING. TIME OUT said of this book: "The most striking thing
about the writing itself is its clarity, even in the poems there is none of that
wordy precociousness that normally besets the first-time writer. The literary
apparatus, all too often a source of alienation, is refreshingly demystified and
made subordinate to an overwhelming desire to document and communicate. But
perhaps the real achievement of the anthology lies in the fact that, over and
above making a reality of working-class culture, it redefines the 'political' in
terms of the struggle of individuals to recapture the right to articulate their
Our own claims for the book were fairly modest. As Ken Worpole (Hackney Writers)
observed in his afterword; "quantity is an important forerunner of excellence:
only when working-class writing and other forms of art become relatively
commonplace activities will the production of works of great universality become
as consistent as it should, and can." However, in putting the case for writers'
workshops, Ken has implicitly put a strong case for a national co-ordinator to
extend such opportunities to many more people in many different localities:
"the workshops are vital. It is in these groups that working class people and
their 'higher-educated' partisans are coming together to read and discuss each
other's work, to fashion forms and standards which neither servilely imitate nor
petulantly reject the best of bourgeois writing. . . . The discussions, the
shared excitement in mid-wifing a stimulating piece of work, as well as the
writing itself, have helped to increase confidence and articulacy."
But if all this came as a breath of fresh air to most people, it seems to have
made little impression on the musty corridors of the Arts Council (except
perhaps to send people scurrying for shelter from the winds of change?). In
response to a request for funding of the WWCP's full-time co-ordinator (for
which the Gulbenkian Foundation has already put up half the money), the Arts
Council's Literature Panel was unanimous in its refusal, judging the Federation
"successful in a social, therapeutic sense, but not by literary standards". The
application was then shunted on to the Community Arts Panel, whose budget,
unlike that of the Literature Panel, tends to be heavily over-subscribed.
That was in March. Since then, Manchester and other Trades Councils have passed
resolutions urging "the TUC Arts Advisory Committee to form a delegation to the
Arts Council, to press them to take the worker writers' movement seriously as a
developing expression of the culture of working people, and to reconsider the
request from the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers for
support for its national co-ordinator through the Literature Panel as the
single, most appropriate source of funding."
The formation of a TUC Advisory Committee on the Arts, Entertainment and Sport
has been one of the positive results of the working party report, in fact. It is
to be hoped that the TUC may yet take up the recommendation that it should
"establish an annually renewable fund for the promotion of artistic and cultural
activities throughout the Movement, and consideration should also be given to
the appointment of an arts officer to direct this work."
Meanwhile, the Federation of Worker Writers cannot continue beyond October on
its present basis. Without further funding, it must return to operating on a
shoestring. Given the background and the unrepresentative nature of the people
who make up the Arts Council (something fully recognised by the working party
report - p.17), it is perhaps not surprising that they should consider us
"nothing to do with literature". The working party report stated quite clearly
that such people must be resisted. I would suggest that the trade union movement
must begin urgently to pile on the pressure at all levels -otherwise the notion
of Tory destruction in the Arts field becomes yet another self-fulfilling
GEORGE THE BONESETTER
I first came across George the bone setter in the late sixties, when he got a
start at the gaff where I was working at the time. Our paths didn't cross much
on the job during the first few weeks of this stay. In fact the first time I
became aware of him as a person, as opposed to just another guy on the end of
another hammer, was the morning I took my brew with a group of Apprentices whom
he had cottoned onto.
He turned out to be a very well-spoken person, with quite a lot to say for
himself. He managed to switch the brew time conversation away from the merits of
Man United to the subject to 'foul' language. His view was that swearing was the
lazy person's way of expressing theirself; he reckoned it to be the mark of a
limited vocabulary, plus a rather cheap way of drawing attention to oneself. He
went on to tell us that it particularly distressed him to hear a woman swear.
From his accent I took him as coming from a different background than the rest
of us. His views led me to believe that he was a bit of a birk.
A week or so after my first encounter with George we both got drafted into the
same bonus gang, working on a big Russian order. When we were both working on
the same pack I'd chat with him as we went along, but I never went out of my way
to get into anything more than formal conversation. Over the weeks he let me
know that he was into Leonard Cohen; wrote 'serious' poetry; knocked about with
a Nurse from Withington Hospital; studied at night with a view to getting into
Medical College, with an overall objective of learning bone setting; and went
around the pubs in Sale on a Friday night selling 'Anti-apartheid News'.
By one of those remarkable quirks of fate the Chargehand of our gang happened to
have a Daughter who had emigrated to South Africa. The Chargehand was not averse
to telling all who would listen that this country was finished in the way of
providing suitable opportunities for any young person with a bit of go in them:
'If I were twenty years younger I'd be up and away to Johannesburg. You wouldn't
see my arse for dust!' The Chargehand, Rawley, kept away from me as a rule, as
he was aware of my political persuasions which were diametrically opposed to his
on race. He also kept away from George as he had a deep embedded loathing of 'studenty
types' One night, the three of us: George, Rawley, and myself, were doing a spot
of late overtime to finish a pack that was wanted out first thing next morning.
We'd nearly got the job wrapped up for half-past eight, so we decided to make a
brew and have a sit down, thus spinning the job out until nearer ten o'clock. We
hadn't all that much in common, so it wasn't really surprising that after ten
minutes of talking about football, low wages, appalling conditions, and
inefficient management, Rawley got around to mentioning the 'beautiful house'
that his Daughter had out in South Africa. I didn't want to know anything about
it. I knew that it was a waste of time bringing any political or ethical points
up about the 'good life' out there, but I could see by the way George's eyes
were narrowing into slits that he was building himself up for an argument. With
great fortitude he contained himself until Rawley got up to telling about the
various Servants that his Daughter kept around the house, and then he let rip.
But Rawley was half ready for it. I'd already given him several doses of the
same thing in my first couple of months at the gaff, and I hadn't even dinted
his armour. He was well and truly secure behind his barricade of stock answers
that he'd reaped from the emigration brochures. He just sat back, slowly nodding
his head, and let George reel off his diatribe on Human Rights.
When George had talked himself to a near standstill, Rawley shook his head
slowly, and in exceedingly patronistic tones let George know that he had got it
all wrong. It seemed that if George were to stop looking at life through the
blinkered eyes of the Guardian editorials, and listen instead to a few
eye-witness accounts of 'ordinary' peoples' experiences of the state of affairs
in the 'land of opportunity', he might be blessed with a more balanced, and
truer, picture. As a man who had been out there visiting his Daughter for two
months, and had talked to the Blacks on equal terms, Rawley could honestly
assure George that the majority of them were happy and contented with their lot:
The new technological revolution created by the Europeans would not only provide
a better standard of living for the whites, but it would also enable the blacks
to get their share of the consumerist goodies.
I could see George getting madder and madder as Rawley went on and on like some
demented public relations officer. Finally it must have reached the point where
he could take no more. He took a deep breath, and shaped up to give Rawley what
I assumed would turn out to be the verbal thrashing of his life. But he must
have got himself wound up too tight, for when he opened his mouth nothing came
out bar a cacophony of spluttering and stuttering.
A condescending smile appeared upon Rawley's face. He must have imagined that
the force of his argument had shattered all George's erroneous preconceptions.
Then, in a flash, George lept forward across the table, grabbed Rawley by the
shirt front, and planted a right hander square on his nose. Rawley's glasses
went flying past my left ear, George let go of Rawley's shirt and stormed off
towards the clock, and Rawley slumped forward onto the table with his hands
covering his face. It happened so fast that it was all over before I realised
what was happening.
I picked up Rawley's glasses from the floor and placed them on the table at the
side of him. Rawley still had his head in his hands, drops of blood were seeping
through his fingers onto the K.J.S.U. tablecloth. Not sure what to do in the
situation, I went down to the shop floor and finished the job off.
When I clocked out at ten o'clock, I looked at George and Rawley's cards. George
had clocked out at 8.50 and Rawley had clocked out at nine o'clock.
'I thought there were three of you working over?' Old Fred the locker-up shouted
to me as I walked past the lodge on my way out through the main gate.
'Aye, there were, but the other two got fed up and left at nine,' I called back.
Fred said no more, not wishing to give the game away that he had spent the last
three hours in the bar of the Labour Club on Third Avenue.
The next day, as soon as the General Foreman got in at nine o'clock, Rawley
stormed up into his office. I had seen him watching for the office light going
on and had suspected as much.
Five minutes later the office door opened, the General Foreman stood in the
doorway and called for George to be sent up.
A further ten minutes later the office door opened again, and I was summoned to
As soon as I walked into the office George blurted out:
'He hit me first, didn't
he?' The General Foreman and Rawley looked directly at me. Looking the General
Foreman straight in the eyes, I said:
'The two of them were arguing, and then
they went for each other.'
'You bloody liar!' Rawley snapped.
'Don't call me a liar, unless you want to come outside and say it,' I roared at
him in as convincing a voice as I could muster.
Rawley was about to carry on the sniping, but the General Foreman told us both
to shut up. He then asked me for a full account of what happened. I gave him the
vague drift of the incident, slipping in bits about Rawley 'coming the
neo-fascist in an attempt to provoke trouble', up to the point where the punch
came, and finished it off with them both squaring up to each other, 'I didn't
see who got the first punch in.'. The General Foreman heard my version out, and
then told me to go back to my job.
When Rawley and George came out of the office, George told me that they had both
received a bollocking, and if ever there was a repetition of the incident they
would be sacked on the spot.
Later on that morning a notice appeared next to the clock stating that in future
no overtime could be worked unless there was a Foreman on the job.
A week later George left off his own bat.
By that time Rawley had my card well and truly marked. I was down for all the
shit jobs from then on. And I couldn't leave, because Sandy was pregnant again
and we needed the money.
SMYTHE ON HISTORY
Scabs Were Here
At the dead end of the Roman lake
the scruffy tribes were battling with their god
from so long back the scribes
were numb of hand and member,
(giving their all had taken all), at the
next Union Meeting, unanimously acclaimed,
it was decided to boycott God in favour
of the Philistines, who were a decent lot
despite their eye-gouging mannerisms
and rotten Health Service. A younger scribe,
eager for reputation and a larger share
of the dumplings, leaked the Composite
to a passing Caesar playing with his galleys,
who took the biscuit and all the dumplings.
Poor Mans Legend
I remember Camelot, not for its pinnacles
like fairy tale confectionery gone riot,
nor the bed-time-tales malicious folk had told
of Arthur and his Queen, her with her come-night-eyes,
nor all that daisychain of chat about
the real Round Table for foreigners titillation.
No, ill-rumour marked me not as
monstrous masonry gave me no warmth
who lived in Goatsherd Lane among his goats
the wattle lives of crowds who could be called on
to cheer a Tourney or fill a battles casualities
for a High Lords Legend. That’s how it was
in Camelot, another feeding place for crows,
with mystic doings like a mocking tune far off.
The Woman’s Tale
It wasn't the careless eye he had with cakes,
nor the ale he supped as if we had a lakeful,
made me scold our lodger to his face
with words hard nursed from weeks of brooding;
it was the common air the man assumed
as though to meet our level at our hearth,
with spitting, grunting, farting, scratching,
jokes of fornicating monks, nunneries,
sly fondling of my nether parts, pressed
hard against me with his man 's ways as a man of mine
I knew the secret of his Kingship, t'was
no surprise to me and t'was less matter,
who would behave at palace as at home
in my own character and in no guise.
Breakfast With Henry
It was the capon lit him, and the goose,
cock, woodcock, quail, pheasant, snipe,
venison, beef, mutton, pork and whatnot,
all this at the same table, mind you,
delicate puddings, sympathetic soups,
monster creations of a maniac cook
to a maniac master. My married life
was mostly watching Henry eat, Henry sweet
with sugared cake, Henry marvelling
at the cooked perfection of a pigs snout,
merry at the aroma of a kitchen wench.
He had been manageable were he always eating,
I caught the in-between delirium of its absence,
the brooding hours of wanted wanting.
Master Daniel, I know I'm only your printers devil,
and my lot in life is not to be compared with yours,
but get your poxy body out of bed
and do some work, you writing thing. Ah, Master Daniel,
awake I see, no, t'was a joke, good sir,
a talking to oneself because the hour is early,
and my master, Lord preserve him, ordered me
at point of whipping, not to return unless
returned I with at least a quire from you
of Mistress Molls last escapade. Too true,
sir, its a poxy life but life is all we've got
and mine is bound by articles to one
who would not shave because he hates to lose the hair.
So, Master Daniel, please. You'll miss the chamber-pot that
He said he was from Space, space drifter,
A kind of seed blown here from cosmic
shifts so vast none on earth or Oldham
could grasp the moments magnitude, nor him.
In earth terms I'm an Emperor Emperors
dreamed of being, less Universe than Universal,
he said: Meanwhile he kept his earthly
self in beans and butties working
as a platelayer with Twenty Nine Gang
in the borrowed body of an absent Yonner:
nowt less than total worship, so he claimed,
belongs ter me. Ah'll start wi' women,
us Space Lords are reet lads, yer know,
call me John Willie, when we're in company.
The Patton Arms
There is a pub in Warrington named after
a mad American General, luckily alive
when mad Generals were valued for their ability
to have men kill each other, so that
civilization, as we know it, might be
saved from barbarism. He must have
been important having a pub named after him,
saving civilization from barbarism. Warrington,
of course, is where the Mersey looks like slurry
on the move, the third most polluted stretch
of river in the country; a town known chiefly
for its distances from Liverpool and Manchester,
a slid-into Cheshire outlet for Main-Line trains,
a place between a Patton and nonentity.
Some famous faces have sat upon that seat
said the man with the peaked nose,
for a small honorium, sir, there is
an amusing anecdote of a titled lady
and a sporting gentleman, well known
in country circles, sir, who attempted
that famous seat at the same time,
both being the worse for, thank you, sir,
for a further note, any colour, sir,
I could recall a royal personage,
nautical, something of a dreadnought
in his bearing, who, slipping
on a misplaced element, found his head
where the Royal arse should be!
Now, sir, if you would walk this way,
here is the bedroom where Edward The Seventh
slept alone, once, dying at the time, sir,
not many Stately Homes nor Palaces either
could boast of that!
DEAD DOG STORY
At half past one every Friday the big game starts. It's called "Catch the
Sweeper". All the lads on the brush speck their carts, shovels and brushes ready
to slope off to the alehouse. Uncle Jim Doyle, the "Walking Ganger", normally
rides round the patches checking everyone is hard at work, but not Fridays.
Fridays he is like the leader in the Tour de France, shooting from one beat to
another. He is a man possessed with stopping an ebbing tide.
To anyone ignorant in the ways of the Corpy Cleansing Department, the sight of
Uncle Jim roaring down streets, knuckles white on handle-bars, face awash in
sweat, means nothing. Woollen-hatted heads popping round corners and earnest
young men scurrying across streets fail to register in the public's mind. The
game is private and personal to us, like. We do have rules which each side
accepts; once inside the bar of Fat Anne's, snug behind a pint, waiting your
turn on the pool table, you are home or safe. Each one can tell his story or
swap with late-comers.
After hiding my cart and limbering up I made my break. From where my patch is it
should have been a dead easy getaway. Down entries, along passages I moved like
warm lard on a hot day. Just as I got to the main road, not two blocks from Fat
Anne's, I heard the squeal of brakes behind me. I knew it was him before I
"And where are you going, Clancy?", he said, as if he didn't know.
"Just going to the toilet, Jim, Why?" I could have bitten my tongue, no one says
toilet, do they? A smile the size of an overripe banana came on his lips. Then
his hand dipped in his pocket and pulled out a small white calling card.
"Have you seen anyone? Where's the Bug and Manxie? just going to join them were
you?", he said.
"I was just going to the toilet, Jim."
I'd said it again. It was the white card I was thinking about - that meant an
extra job for someone. He was getting excited. I can always tell. The nostrils
of his bulbous nose began moving like concertinas. They have a magnetic appeal
to me and my head started going up and down in rhythm with his breathing. He
soon realised what I was doing and we had one of those embarrassed silences with
his eyes burning into me.
"Before you go back to the yard, get this," he said with a snarl and handed the
card over like it was a five-pound back-hander, dead sly like. One push on the
pedals and he was gone, mumbling.
"The pride of England's youth, God help us."
He was in a good mood. I was going to put the card in my pocket and go to the
alehouse anyway, but something made me look at it. In long hand script it said:
Pick up dead dog, 24 Assisi Street, URGENT.
When I looked up he was half way down the road, his head turned back. Written
all over his face was, "I've had you." You can't win them all. I knew it would
happen sometime. So, after getting my cart I headed for Assisi Street, hoping to
God it was a mistake.
The precinct has three avenues of shops all the same size and shape that sell
mostly everything under the sun. Just as I was going through it, passing the
Betting Office, the Bug and Manxie sneaked out on me. The Bug stroking his
Zapata moustache, sidled over.
"Where are you going then, Plum Duff? No ale today?"
He gave Manxie, who had joined him, a dig in the ribs.
"Rumour has it that Uncle Jim is looking for a person to . . . er. do an
important job." Manxie said, laughing at the same time.
Then the Bug really started.
"A sort of fella that likes animals. Have you any sawdust in your blood by any
chance, Clancy, 'cause I bet you're favourite?"
He put his face on Manxie's shoulder and began to snigger. What can you say?
They know everything that happens even before the Boss. I left them holding one
another up in pleats of laughter.
24 Assisi Street was a red-bricked house with brown woodwork and a wrought iron
fence. A young piece opened the door. She was wearing no make-up, always a sign
of class, that.
"I've come for the dog," I said.
Really nice, she said,
"Would you go round the back, please?", and then walked
back into the hall.
Her little daughter was standing in the back yard. She was aged about four, with
big hazel eyes behind long lashes. Tarts in clubs spend hours trying to achieve
the same effect. A mop of black curls hung on her shoulders. She looked
The dog was in a lean-to shed wrapped in an old blanket. I was getting more
nervous all the time.. Before her mother could usher the girl into the house she
"Where are you taking my Sally, Mister?"
I know it sounds soft but I couldn't leave her without an answer.
"I 'm going to
take Sally to the cemetery. I've got a nice spot under the tree for her and I'll
give her some flowers."
The little girl burst into tears and ran into the house. Her mother followed,
after giving me an envelope. I put the shovel under the dog, Sally, and carried
her to the cart. Then my problems started. See, Sally was a big dog with long
pale hair, the colour of a Labrador. She was never meant to fit in any iron bin.
I tried one way, then the other, until the blanket fell off her head. Two black
eyes stared out of their sockets and seemed to follow me round. The way things
were shaping up I'd have been there until dark. Finally I managed to get the
dog's back legs in the bin. All the time I'd been pushing and shoving, strange
noises came from the dog's belly. In the end I hit it with me shovel and wedged
it in a forward facing position. Then I headed back to the yard. Sally in the
lead with vacant eyes.
The only way back to the yard from Assisi Street is through the shopping
precinct or around the ring road, which adds ten minutes to the journey. I was
in no mood for a trip around the district so I took the short cut, but it still
seemed ages before I was at the top of the precinct. It was packed with women
holding bags of groceries, the posh ones pulling wicker carts. Things would have
been all right only for this old woman wearing a cloche hat. She was as daft as
they come. Give the rest of the women their due, they moved over, dead nice
like, when they saw me coming. Some jumped into shops and others stood still
watching but saying nothing, like. Then outside the butcher's that old woman
heads for me. Everyone was watching her. She had a bit of paper in her hand and
was going to put it in one of me bins. There are still people like that you
know. I had to stop for her. She didn't even notice the dog at first.
"Thank you, son", she said, dropping the paper in the bin.
"All right, Ma," I said, ready to push off smart like. Then she saw the dog.
"That's a very nice dog you've got there. What's her name?"
"Sally," I said.
"Just taking Sally out for a walk, are you?"
"Yeah, sort of, Ma. She's not too good on her dolly pegs these days."
Well, what else could I say. Everyone in the precinct had stopped, even the shop
assistants were staring out of the windows.
"Well, Sally, I hope you enjoy your walk," she said. I knew she'd stroke the dog
when she pulled her glove off. The wizened hand seemed to take forever to touch
Sally. With long determined strokes on the dog's side and finally a good scratch
under the ears the old dear stopped.
"She's a very quiet dog, isn't she?" she said.
I didn't half think quick.
"She's a bit old now, can't even close her eyes when she sleeps." The dog's
"You should take her to the vet, you know. I have a bit of eye trouble myself."
"More than you know," I thought. With a happy sigh the old dear left. I was glad
to see the back of her.
A sound like a bag of wet mortar being dropped came from the fruit shop. Mrs
Dixon had fainted. Just as I got to the end of the precinct, her husband, the
shop owner, came running after me. He was shouting,
"I saw it. I saw it all!!"
You'd have thought he'd been robbed the way he went on.
"I'll report you! I can report you," he kept saying. So I called the yard's open
phone number out without turning round. He wants to be a councillor and leads
all sort of crackpot committees that make beds of nails for Corpy bosses. The
best thing is that he sells second grade fruit at top prices and pays bad wages.
A typical dyed in the wool, small time Tory.
The two angels of doom were leaning on the wall outside the yard gate. The Bug
"What was Rin-Tin-Tin's master's name?"
Then it was Manxie's turn.
"How many puppies did Lassie have in her last film?" The Bug said he didn't know
and that I was the expert on doggery. More laughs. I told them to get stuffed
and walked away. As an afterthought, the Bug said I was sacked. There had been a
phone call about me. The Bug never makes mistakes about things like that. Well,
if they were going to sack me I'd give them something to remember me by.
"Watch this," I said. Have you ever had a fantasy? You know, when you see the
hero in a film crash a car into a wall and then get out and walk away. Other
fellas can kill ten men and lay as many women in between. I think Tarzan's the
best. He's my hero, swinging from trees and wrestling lions that have no teeth
or claws. I made me mind up to give Simpson a nightmare to remember me by.
The container where we empty our carts is facing the office window. That's where
I parked mine. First I gave them a cracking Tarzan call to wake them all up in
the office. Then I pulled the dog by the collar from the bin and threw it on the
floor. It bounded back at me almost right at my throat but I just pulled away in
time. It was so real even the Bug and Manxie liked it and egged me on. Then I
slipped over and the dog rolled on top of me. What a performance! Uncle Jim had
to spoil it. He called
"Clancy, get in this office. Now!"
Simpson, the Inspector, was sitting behind the desk. The office smelt of
whiskey. He'd been on the bottle again. Uncle Jim stood behind me.
"Well, what have you to say for yourself?" Simpson said, hoping to bait me and
get things going his way. I wasn't having any.
"Can I have a new pair of gloves?" I said. "These have blood on them," then I
threw them on the desk in front of him. You'd have thought they were live sewer
rats the way he jumped up. The best about it was it was only tomato sauce from a
broken bottle in the container.
"Get them off my desk!"
I picked them up.
"Listen, Mr. Bloody Clancy, I've had phone calls from half the shops in the
precinct. You've caused murder up there. People from the town office will hear
Just for a laugh I said,
"The dog was dead when I picked it up and it was you
that wanted it picked up anyway."
"My God! For what you did today, people have been locked up in lunatic
asylums for the rest of their lives." He had the pipe out of his mouth and was
pointing it at me.
"Don't take it in the wrong spirit, Boss," I said, hoping he'd take the hint
about his drinking. His eyes bulged and his ears were glowing red.
"Well, you won't be picking up any more dogs. You're sacked, Clancy!"
"Right!" I said. "I'll see you at the Industrial Tribunal and if I go, someone
will go with me."
Uncle Jim stepped forward and asked me to wait outside as Simpson started
screaming "Get out!".
I did and outside of the door I heard them talking. Uncle Jim was telling
Simpson that the last fella to take the Corpy to a tribunal walked away with two
hundred pounds in his pocket, and what would happen if he did the same. The
phone rang and Simpson kept saying,
"Yes, Yes. Right, Madam. Thank you."
When he put the phone down, Uncle Jim was at him again.
"He'll blow you up about
the drinking, Stan. He's a head case."
Simpson waited for a minute and then said,
"Go and tell him."
Uncle Jim came out and said I was not sacked after all and winked. The woman
whose dog it was had just phoned up and thanked the boss, saying how nice I had
been when collecting the dog. Then he went back into the office. I followed
after the door was closed. Uncle Jim asked Simpson what he was going to do with
me as I couldn't go back to the precinct beat. Simpson said,
"Well, if he's a
lunatic, a head case, I'll do what Napoleon did with them. I'll get a bigger
lunatic head case to look after a little lunatic head case."
All Jim said was,
"That's right," Simpson said. "Now send the lad home."
Outside the gate the Bug and Manxie were waiting for me. They started howling
and barking when they walked over. I gave them the rest of the story and how the
woman had phoned the boss.
"She even gave me this envelope," I said. "Look
there's three pounds."
The Bug and Manxie started laughing and the Bug said,
"The phone call was from
the tart in the Betting Office. I made her do it for you. You don't think anyone
gives a monkey's for you. Christ! One born every day!"
Then Manxie put the bite on me, asking could I see my way to lending them a
pound each for services rendered! Well I always was a soft touch
ERNIE THE FITTER
Noo heors a tale ah canna vouch for as true
But it was towld teh me by one or two,
Of a fitter caalled Ernie a likeable lad
And the family o thorteen that he had.
Noo Ernies missus hadn't much time for leisure
Thorteen kids might be a dubious pleasure,
Seh noo and then teh give her a respite
She'd gan teh the bingo on an odd night.
Between eight and nine Ernie it is said
Thowt it time teh put the bairns teh bed,
Experience had shown shooting ne good at aaIl
Seh he blew a bugle teh soond thor recaall.
By one's and twos the kids drifted back in
Teh be clean washed as any new pin
Till just one black face was left ootside
Are ye coming in, wor Ernie then cried.
"Na!" says the bairn, Ah am certainly not
At which wor Ernie grew somewhat hot,
Gave pursuit and finally caught the mite
In the process receiving a nasty bite.
The bairn subdued met soap and toowel
His cleansed appearance made Ernie a fool,
His bairns laughed aalmost withoot pause
"Hey dad, thats not one o wors.
BRONCHITIS MK. II
Ellie stood handless as a relative at a deathbed as she watched them dismantle
Bronchitis MK I in a frenzy of spanners and wrenches. It came apart so easily
and Ellie saw its metal guts for the first time, spilled out in a tumble of
gears and rods and plates and screws at her feet. She thought it disappointing
that the source of all its familiar tempers and judders and jerks should turn
out to be this heap of cold metal pieces that couldn't muster a shine between
them. It was a sorry looking sight now that it was pulled clear of the assembly
line and stood in lonely glory in the aisle, with its flaking islands of paint
sticking defiantly to sheltered edges, its leads sprawling from its belly like
tree roots, leaning on its bent legs now that the support of the neighbouring
machine was gone. Ellie knew the history of each patch on its body, the
oversized lever that had replaced the original, the cardboard square where the
inspection plate had been, and the place where her tools hung, bearing light
patches, each the perfect outline of the tool which hung in front of it. The men
quickly captured and roped up the snaking leads, levered the whole lot onto a
trolley, shovelled the screws and gears onto the sides and suddenly, Bronchitis
I was gone.
Ellie turned to the space and picked up a brush. There was only a silhouette in
dust left now and she was loath to sweep it away and make the space truly empty.
People were looking at her though and she drew the brush across the floor
quickly and it was all gone. She went and sat with the girl at the next bench
and waited and presently heard trolley wheels again, also a speculative hum
advancing down the line, but she did not turn to look even when she felt her arm
brushed by a man's back as he worked the new machine into place. The men were
talking, advising, warning, taking care with the new machine because it was very
expensive and still wrapped in polythene, littered with printed cards saying
TAKE GREAT CARE. USE NO HOOKS. FRAGILE, and various other technical
instructions. Out of the corner of her eye Ellie saw the power lead wriggle
across the floor, bright new flex and a white plug. She shuddered. Then her
supervisor was at her side and talking to her.
"The instructress will be down in a minute to start you off. Dou you want to get
the feel of it? Sit down at it and look it over?"
As she could not put it off any longer, Ellie rose and nodded and looked at it.
It was smaller. The same shape near enough, but neater and sleeker, a glimmering
burnished silver thing with sharp square edges and a funny smell. Slowly she sat
down and began to examine
it. There were no levers, no foot switch, no clicking indicators, nothing to
touch except two buttons. ON and OFF. At eye-level a glass square looked at her.
Peering into it she saw dimly a black word. NIL. That was it. A hole at either
end and two buttons. Ellie's heart sank at its dullness and she sat wishing that
her wheezing, rackety Bronchitis I was in front of her and that she was
listening and guiding it through its work, coaxing it over its sticking stage
and banging on the indicator till it rattled home. The pitch of her longing
surprised her; she felt sick.
"Haven't you plugged in yet, Ellie?"
Ellie looked up at the instructress and grimaced. She bent under the machine and
pushed the plug into the socket and flicked the switch down. The machine buzzed
loudly and Ellie cracked her head on its belly as she jerked up in surprise,
Bronchitis I had been silent when switched on. The instructress laughed and
helped her into her seat. She stared at it amazed.
"Like bloody Blackpool!" she said, regarding the sudden appearance of coloured
lights in some awe. They were everywhere. Beside the two buttons, along the top,
inside the glass square which now pronounced NIL in a disapproving red glow, and
from inside the machine the buzz was now constant and anxious. When she leaned
closer Ellie saw that the machine was studded with glass squares behind which
monosyllabic information was offered. SET. MIN. MAX. CUT. LOW. OVER. She shook
"What's all that about?" she asked the instructress.
The instructress handed her a manual opened at a coloured diagram and Ellie
scanned the closely printed page in some alarm.
"Am I supposed to learn all that!" she asked indignantly, noting the number of
long words and symbols that dotted the page.
"You'll get used to it. It's easier than it looks. A lot of long words to
describe simple things as usual. Come on now, Ellie, they wouldn't give us a
machine we couldn't work, now would they?"
She was brisk now, anxious to get on with more important things and she appealed
to Ellie's pride in an attempt to get started.
"It's easier than the other old crock, all electric and all automatic. You just
shove a unit in here, check the indicators, press the ON button and out it comes
all done. It stops itself if anything's wrong. You try." she said.
Ellie pushed a unit in and stabbed at the button sulkily. The buzz deepened and
the unit appeared at the other end, finished.
"Simple as blinking!" announced the instructress.
Ellie stared at the unit in her hand, it was finished and yet she had heard
nothing, no click as it settled into place, no whirr as the air driver
descended, no bobble as it jumped out of the machine. It had all been silent
except for one little click as NIL rolled over to ONE. And her hands, just a
finger used, one prodded finger. Ellie was horrified.
"Oh no! I can't do this all day. I'll go nuts. I want to see the foreman. I'm
not doing this." she announced firmly.
In the end there was a discussion on the line. The supervisor, the instructress
and Ellie all talking in low voices, Ellie with some fervour, and it was agreed
that Ellie would try it for a week and then they would all see how things were.
Ellie agreed because she knew she would feel no differently a week hence and the
other two agreed because they had been allowed a flat two hours change-over time
and they were already ten minutes over that, and a week was a long time. Ellie
sat and moodily prodded her button and the units went in and came out in silence
and perfection - there was no need for Ellie's hookless tools - no hand repairs
- just the glow and hum and complacency of the machine and Ellie's finger. She
felt a bitter jealousy stir in her at the completeness of her dethronement, she
wished it would burst into flames or blow up or just die on her but it stayed
cool and efficient and accurate and disclosed no hint of a fault to Ellie.
She suddenly thought of her library book - a science fiction -about a world
where machines did everything and people did things like walking and reading and
dancing all day. Their machines had set them loose from work but hers had
brought her misery in a few hours. She knew very well that her finger was all
that was keeping her in her job and the knowledge came so hard and blunt at her
that she said out loud. "It's not fair!" The book was stupid.
She could not bear the futility it forced upon her. In that trial week her
fingers began the day loyal to Bronchitis I by reaching out for the lever and
the crank, and each day she kicked herself for not remembering when it hurt her
so to jerk herself back to its replacement and begin the weary prodding over
again. She could not trust it, nor shake off a fretting that took hold of her
more and more as the perfect units slid out of the machine and she looked them
over for some fault that was never there. With Bronchitis I she had felt things
happening, it had been loud and she had come to know the exact moment when each
stage was reached even though she could see nothing and did not know precisely
how it worked. But the Thing (she called it that, unable to bear christening it
with a thoughtful name) remained silent. It had only one other noise than its
buzz and this she had discovered when she poked a unit in back to front to see
if it was up to a little fight. Then the glass squares had blinked all together
and the belly of the thing had emitted a shrill angry whistle at her. Thereafter
she poked at least one unit in back to front every day just to hear its
indignation, sometimes prolonging the fault until her companions begged her to
right it and stop the awful whistle. The fretting continued and so increased
that she found herself so wound up that she had to switch it off and sit still
for a moment while she forced herself to calm down. She began to fear she was
turning out nothing but rejects, that real work had to be more effort, she took
boxes and boxes of units to the supervisor pleading with him to look them over
for her, and he became annoyed with her and told her to get back to work and
stop fussing. She had cried and he had been frightened.
She couldn't sleep for frustration plucking at her muscles. Her husband had
wakened, ill-tempered, and snarled at her.
"For Crist's sake, lie down and be
still!" She nudged him.
"Tom, I want to leave the factory. Get another job.
"There was a short silence before he mumbled.
"We can't afford it." and fell
back into sleep noisily.
"That's another daft thing about that book. Where'd
they get the money from for dancing all day?" she said to herself in the
darkness. She laid down and tried to be still.
They all sat together in the tiny office, the supervisor, Ellie, the
instructress and the foreman. The foreman had offered cigarettes and was fixing
a genial smile into place before he spoke. Ellie looked miserable and the
"Now then, what's the trouble Ellie?"
She shifted in her chair, too miserable to speak and the silence embarrassed
them all after a few moments so there was a rush to speak and a tangle of words,
then a short polite silence before they all rushed in again. The foreman hauled
out his authority.
"I understand the new machine is giving you trouble, rather, causing you some
distress, Ellie?" Ellie nodded mutely.
"Don't you understand it? Surely, Mrs Peebles here, showed you how it works. I
understood it was automatic. Has it been having teething troubles, anyone?" he
asked them all.
"Oh, I showed Ellie but I have to say that she didn't . . well like it from the
start. It's really very easy to operate and there's been no stoppage due to the
machine." the instructress finished.
"Her work's fine. Target's up of course, with it being so much faster than
Bronchitis 1 . ."
"Faster than what . . . !" interrupted the foreman.
"Bronchitis 1. My old machine. It was a real machine." Ellie said flatly.
"Compressed air." explained the supervisor. "It wheezed".
"Oh, I see ... well, look Ellie, can you not explain what is wrong. We'd like to
help." the foreman asked gently.
Ellie straightened herself in her chair and looked hard at him. He was smiling
encouragingly at her. She took a deep breath and spoke slowly, like an advocate
"Bronchitis 1 and me worked together - we were both important. I had to wind him
along and watch him and he had to punch the units. You had to know him - you had
to earn the right to work with him, by knowing the job and understanding him. My
hands, well, my hands knew the job, they listened to him and knew when he needed
a bang on the box. I felt him working. But now, I push the button and the
electrics take over. I don't know what I've done. Christ! A monkey could do what
I'm doing now and you wouldn't have to pay a monkey. I'm taking home pay for
nothing and it's like I was stealing. I've no respect for myself. I used to feel
tired at night because I'd worked all day and that meant I'd earned my money. I
want off that job . . please." she finished in a low voice and her emotion
filled the office as if it were a gas cloud stunning them. Such an appeal was
unheard off in these surroundings - human to human, and the three listeners,
threw their frantic gazes out of the window while their identical lumpish
throats swallowed furiously in the silence.
"Okay, something mechanical, I think. Ellie, we'll work it out today and start
you somewhere else tomorrow. We can't get Bronchitis back now, unfortunately.
Run along." the foreman said to her departing back.
"Funny sort of girl that, she made me feel ashamed of something for a moment.
Silly." he said to the supervisor, trying for their usual masculine conspiracy.
"You don't think when they say you can have some new plant that it might
interfere with things like this. I remember ordering that machine."
The supervisor faced him frowning.
"Just the same, someone's got to work it, and tomorrow since you let Ellie off
from then. What if it happens again?" he asked worriedly.
"It won't. She must have been the sensitive type. Transfer one of your
wooden-tops, one of the ones that can't tell left from right properly, someone
who's doing something dead simple just now. And we'll take it as it comes after
Next morning a new girl sat at the machine. The instructress was with her for
five minutes and after that the girl prodded the button every twenty seconds
throughout the day, fascinated by the glowing lights and the soft buzz of the
machine. So pretty after that spitting solder bath, so quiet and dreamy, cushy
job this, she thought, wonder why that other girl left it?
Ellie sat two lines up, bent over her hands, flexing the fingers around the unit
she held, using them all as she tweaked, prodded, poked, wound and twisted
multi-coloured leads into place slowly and with loving care. Eyes, ears and
fingers taut, she felt her face uncrease as the pile of completed units grew and
she saw already, that her units were recognisable in the pile by the way she
twisted her leads, a little tighter and closer than the others. It was like a
signature, Ellie's work, something that was hers and she was responsible for. A
little way off the supervisor watched her and saw from the smooth arc of her
spine that she was engrossed and content. "Daft bitch." he said to himself.
Today there are still many Hamans
And Hitlers and Francos
But for each one of these you will find
One million men and women whose own
In-built motors are run on the milk
Of human kindness
Is an empty luxury
To no one -Not even
To the donor
STARRETT ON ITALY
LA DOLCE VITA - A letter from Bob Starrett
By now you'll have seen by the post mark, that I'm living in Italy. Why? Well
it's one of those events that take place in my life periodically between long
periods of routine behaviour. I'll call it artistic temperament. (Wee Boab isn't
as contained (?) as his west of Scotland Calvinistic background would have
The truth of the matter is that for more years than I want to think about I've
always wanted to spend a bit of time in this part of the world - Artwise
Well, an Italian comrade visited the Byres Road during the summer and I asked
him if there was anything doing that I could handle.
I forgot all about it.
However, a couple of weeks back, he sent for me with, as they say, an offer I
couldn't refuse. It's guarding an ancient Villa full of neoclassical junk that's
awaiting auction in about a year's time. I've to wander through the junk filled
rooms at night arid check the seals on the doors. It takes a bit of getting used
to. But patrolling the grounds at night is the experience of all time. Being a
city slicker, I had always assumed that night time in the country was fairly
Well, have you ever heard an acorn crash to the ground in the dead of night, not
to mention autumn leaves following you around, being blown by a slight breeze
that wheezes in fits and starts like an old man. Aye, Rick, in times like these
I'm glad I'm a Marxist - as for robbers, well, I'm armed with a Winchester
Repeater, and at times I would rather face robbers, at least they're from the
materialistic world, whereas the dark side of nature is beyond my ken.
Which brings me to a subject that should interest you. Because of the language
difficulties (The inflections, the dialects, the hand language etc) it's a
constant strain to listen to everyday conversation. Indeed, it's like
experiencing a deluge of words and you're trying to catch one drop as a starting
point. The outcome of it is that one's senses are heightened to such a degree
that it's like hearing words for the first time in one's life. In just such a
frame of mind I read Hugh MacDiarmid's Drunk Man Looks etc. It was a knock out.
Whereas previously I had skimmed the surface of the words, with my new awareness
of their sounds, meanings etc. the poem was a real emotional experience. Imagine
having to travel to Italy to understand one's own language!
A wee bit of spiel about my position here. - Seeing so much beauty after 7 1/2
years looking at bloody war ships is too strong a diet. I went out last Sunday
with a comrade, and the first little hamlet we passed through was absolutely
beautiful, so much so that I wanted to photograph it right away. Then we passed
another of different style but equally beautiful and another and another and
another It was visually the equivalent of a
kid being let loose in a sweet shop, and the feeling of nausea was just as
strong at the end of the day. On TV last year, during a three part series about
a dreadful housing estate in Glasgow, "Lillybank", a councillor remarked that
"there was a pain felt by so long looking at downright grey ugliness". Well, I
have just the opposite. We dined on trout antipasto, trout spaghetti, roasted
trout I hadn't had a trout in years, (too
expensive in Scotland) and here we were eating them in surroundings of
indescribable beauty, (the mountain peaks were all capped with snow a la tourist
posters) and everyone round the table a communist. I remarked on the difference
in lifestyles between our two countries and indeed, between our two parties.
They laughed -hedonists to a man. This is not the home of the Dolce Vita for
Everyone is armed to the bloody teeth. The bastards shoot everything that takes
to the air. Someone said that "you could judge the freedom of a country by the
right of the populace to bear arms." It's some contradiction.
This region has one of the highest living standards in Europe. My own wages are
fantastic. Food is cheap as it's an agricultural area. Someone told me that the
place had the highest amount of motor cars per capita in Italia. Well, they
didn't need to tell me really -had already attempted unsuccessfully to cross the
Now I hope to continue working with Brian and yourself Rick, but there may be a
difficulty getting my brain sorted out to do any decent work. My cartoons depend
on being abrasive and it's a difficult emotion to generate after you've dined on
a five course meal. But it's my wish - one would have to take into account the
Italian postal service which must be the worst in the world. But given plenty of
time we should be able to work something out.
I was getting myself fit before departing and as you know, you don't want to
lose the fitness once you have attained it - it's too bloody hard earned. I was
enquiring about bringing a racing bike over here and honestly the faces on the
guys registered complete bafflement. Why anyone would want to push their bodies
through any kind of hardship was beyond them. A comrade, Renzo, who organises a
cycle race annually for the town told me that all the leading cycle racers argue
over the course, the amount of prize money etc., and he told me, to a man, they
all hate the game. They hope to win a few quid and open a wee factory or
something. The guys he mentioned are my idols too!!!
The illustrations I've included, Rick, maybe will be too parochial for your
readers, but they accurately reflect the position of a shipyard punter facing
The illustration showing me at a typical Italian table is based on a visit I
made to a farm house in the village of Petriolo. It was typical Italian and the
people had worked the land for years as their people did before them, indeed the
house itself was at least 200 years old. They were party members of longstanding
and I looked for the usual 'clues' to back that up. But it was all so very
different from back home. The Tele had a curtain round it like a theatre (which
is maybe the idea) and I've included that in the sketch. From the ceiling clung
all kinds of salamis etc and yet the only visual on the walls, which were all
stark white, was a print of Micky Mouse - I've entitled the illustration
'Cultural Imperialism'. But you know all that.
The drawing depicting me as a prisoner of the Villa is near the mark as to what
a creative person feels who for one reason or another they can't 'take part' or
fully understand their environment.
I see Voices still has cash difficulties. Aye, the UK is free all right - if you
have the dough. But it's one of the few publications that exist for workers to
express themselves which isn't infantile, so it must survive.
Down among the dead eyes,
Hacking at the coal,
Take your breath most lightly,
The dust will take its toll.
Pile up high the pit heaps,
Pile up high the debt,
Pile up high the grey slag,
Monuments to sweat.
Down the crushing coal face
Along the pit prop maze
Darkness in the night times
Blackness in the days.
Speed on the shift's end,
To mark the end of toil,
Pour out into the night air,
Like rain from a gargoyle.
Soon, if he tried to be very holy, the statue would start wobbling. It had
always wobbled. Sometimes before confession it wobbled and sometimes after
confession, but it had always wobbled sometime.
He knew he wasn't a saint, like, but he felt sure that the statue of Mary didn't
wobble for everyone. He couldn't ask anybody, though, if they saw it wobble
because if they didn't they'd laugh at him or tell him that he only thought it
wobbled and that it didn't really. Maybe that's what the saints thought when
they saw all the holy things but it didn't stop them from telling other people
about it. But he wasn't a saint and he wasn't brave and he was going to keep
quiet about it. Anyway so far it hadn't wobbled. He liked it when it didn't
wobble before confession cos he could look forward to seeing it wobble after
confession. That was exciting. And when he saw it wobble after confession he'd
know he'd made a Good Confession and that his soul was white and he could be
He knelt in the queue outside the confessional and now and again looked up at
the statue of the Virgin and then bowed his head and screwed his eyes tightshut
and tried to prepare himself for a Good Confession. There were two boys before
him. That was alright, to have two boys before you, cos you didn't have to try
too hard to shut out noises. You had to shut out noises. When there was nobody
in front of him he'd be able to hear the confession of the boy inside and then
he'd have to try very hard not to listen and he'd say the Hail Mary over and
over to himself and think upon the words. It was important to think upon the
words. "Upon the words" didn't mean on top of the words". Miss had told them
that. When he'd first been told to think upon the words he'd imagined a man
lying sprawled out, with his chin in his hands, on top of those big lit-up signs
down town. But "upon" meant "about", Miss had said. When he thought upon the
words he couldn't listen in to another's confession. That was a very bad sin, to
listen in to another's confession.
He thought what it would be like if all his thoughts were written on the back of
his head so that the boys behind him could read them. He often thought of that.
Especially at confession. Nobody else's head was like that and there was no
reason why his should be but he wasn't the same as anybody else and maybe that's
what it was that made him different and maybe nobody wanted to tell him. Maybe
they just read what he was thinking about and laughed at him and talked about
him behind his back because they wouldn't ever think about the things he thought
His mam was in the back kitchen getting a bath. She'd told them all. When his
mam or dad or any of the grown-ups were getting a bath- in the back kitchen he
couldn't go to the lay. The lay was in the back yard and he had to go through
the back kitchen to get out there and when they were getting a bath he couldn't.
He'd been watching the telly. Wyatt Earp: Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave
courageous and bold. Long live his glory and long live his fame
And long may his story be told. and maybe that's what made him forget.
He opened the door and heard the splashing of water in a bowl and the splashing
of water on an oilcloth floor and the slapping of a foot on a wet floor and he
smelt the smell of lifebuoy and cool air, all at the same time, and he saw his
mam there naked with her head and neck flashing around to look at him through
her hair. She was stooped over, drying herself, with the towel between her legs
and her hair all wet and tatty and long and black falling down nearly straight
to her waist and he saw in a hot flash the other hair, all black and curly, and
he knew his mam was deformed and how terrible it was for him to see her and her
deformity and the words came so easily to his heaving mind - any words - any
words to make her think he hadn't noticed, it didn't matter, everything was
Oh, hurry up mam; I'm dyin' for a pee.
And already he'd turned away and stepped back into the kitchen as he heard her
and half saw her shrieking at him that he'd done it on purpose and there were no
words then, thank God - just tears and crying, "I didn't. I didn't", and
everyone else, including his dad, quiet with their eyes down on the floor and
music coming from the telly.
And then he sat on the couch, the couch with the wire coming through, and
practised how to make the lights from the telly go all pointy through his tears
and he heard his mam emptying out the water from the bowl and now and then he
caught his dad looking at him and wondering.
It made him go hot to think of that. Hot and wishing that he hadn't been born.
How nice, not to have been born and not to have to die. He would be hot just
before he died; hot and ashamed and his head heavy. That must have been how
Christ was in the Garden of Gethsemane, hot and his head near bursting and blood
coming through his skin instead of sweat. In confession, when he got hot, he
would feel his forehead and look at the wetness on his hand but it would always
be sweat and he would draw a cross on the palm of his hand with his fingernail
and the dirt and the sweat.
On Saturdays he did the bedrooms for his mam. He liked to do the bedrooms and
see the beds all made and no fluff underneath them and the sticky bits on the
oilcloth all mopped away, and all because he'd done it. And afterwards he'd show
them to his mam and she'd be pleased and say to everyone how they ought to see
those rooms now, how spotless they were.
That was a reward on earth, to hear his mam say that, so God wouldn't take much
notice of it but it was nice, anyway, to hear it and probably everyone wanted to
hear things like that when they'd done something good.
He thought it was good to bring the bandage thing down with the dark-red stains
on it. He got hold of the little hoop and carried it dangling into the kitchen
and his mam saw it and screamed at him to mind his own business and grabbed it
off him like it was a rat and ran with it to the back kitchen and he started to
cry and ask what it was and everybody turned away and pretended to watch
"Grandstand" and he knew it was something to do with the other hair he'd seen
It was Bunloaf hearing confession, Tommy Poach passed on the message as he was
going out. Bunloaf once gave Stevie Thompson nine First Fridays for a penance
and everyone said that Stevie must've been wanking and they laughed and he
laughed too but he didn't know what they meant. Wank sounded bad and sponk
sounded bad too and they said sponk a lot. Sponk sounded smelly. Like a poe the
What would you do if you got nine First Fridays?. Would you have to do them all
before the sins were forgiven? That meant nine months of living in a state of
mortal sin, and if you died before the nine months you'd go straight to Hell.
And you couldn't receive communion before the nine months were up. Stevie
must've done them all cos he was receiving communion again now. That meant
Stevie wouldn't die without a priest being there. That was a promise they made:
do the nine First Fridays and there'll be a priest at your death. How could they
be so sure about that? But it was true cos otherwise they wouldn't have said it
and if it wasn't true then the wife or the child or the parents of someone who'd
done the nine First Fridays and died without a priest would have come along and
told everyone that it was a lie. And nobody had said it was a lie. Sometimes he
wished that Father Bunloaf would give him nine First Fridays and then he'd have
to do them and then he'd be sure of a priest. He'd tried to do them, like, but
the furthest he ever got was Four and that was no good cos you had to do them
all in a row. Consecutive, they called it.
His mam and dad had never done the nine First Fridays and they never went to
mass. He wasn't ever going to get married until they were dead cos he wanted to
be sure they got a priest when they died. His dad coughed a lot. How could
Heaven be nice if you were there and your mam and dad were in Hell? The priest
said that then you'd see how wicked they were and how much they deserved to be
in Hell and that they would hate you for being in Heaven. He couldn't understand
that and he didn't want to see his mam and dad in Hell and he often cried about
that, alone in bed, and prayed to God that they'd get their faith back or that
they wouldn't die without a priest.
His turn was next. He thought upon the words of the Hail Mary:
Hail, Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women
He didn't stutter when he prayed. Praying was like singing and
he could pray and sing and not stutter. His stutter had been blessed by the
priest three times now and still he stuttered. His brain worked quicker than his
mouth, his mam said, and that was why he stuttered. But that wasn't why really.
"Nine o'clock mass and holy communion" was very hard to say. He had to say that
every Monday morning when Miss took the mass attendance register. He said "nine
o'clock mass and holy communion" even when he hadn't been to mass at all.
Everyone was expected to go to nine o'clock mass and holy communion. Some lads
said that they hadn't been and that was very brave. Miss got angry sometimes
even if you said "ten o'clock mass and holy communion". Ten o'clock mass was for
One Monday after a Sunday when he'd been to nine o 'clock mass he told himself
that he wasn't going to stutter over it and God was going to help him not to
stutter cos he'd be telling the truth, and he was sure of it as Miss went round
the class and then it got to his turn and his teeth went together to say "nine"and
the muscles in his jaw hardened and started to ache and his arm went straight
out and came crashing down into the top of his leg and then straight out again
and then crashing down again as he tried to get out the "nine" and all the time
he was making this choking noise from the back of his throat and it felt like
the noise was coming from his ears and the sides of his head and nothing was
getting through the teeth and then with the last breath in his body he sort of
gasped out "nine" but so low that Miss couldn't hear but she pretended she did
and then he drew in his breath again for the "o 'clock" and some of the class
were laughing and some were looking down at their desks and Miss was looking
hard into her register.
He could hear the sound of voices in the confessional and the rustle of paper
from the queue behind him and giggles from the queue. It was important to
prepare himself, to think upon the words:
And blessed is the Fruit
Of thy womb, Jesus
He went to confession every four weeks, with the school. Once
there had been a holy day and he'd had to tell the priest that he'd missed mass
five times and the priest had asked him how he could miss mass five times in
four weeks cos the priest had forgotten about the holy day. The priest had
laughed then too. It was alright when he'd missed mass four times, and those
five times were alright, cos he could say four and five easily. Once he had
missed mass three times and he couldn't get "three" out so he'd changed it to
four. That was o.k., to say you'd sinned more than you had, it was only telling
less that was bad. When you told less your sins weren't forgiven and you got an
extra sin on top of them as well, a sacrilege.
Someone was poking him in the back. They wouldn't have liked being poked in the
back if it had been their turn next. Maybe they could read his thoughts on the
back of his head and they were going to tell him how stupid and dirty he was. He
could hear the rustle of paper right behind him and the boys were talking more
loudly now and saying something about Stevie.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now .
But it was no good. He couldn't think upon the words anymore
and he turned to see what they wanted him to see. A Manchester United wall
chart. Stevie had got a Manchester United wallchart. Nobody he knew had ever got
a Manchester United wallchart and everybody wanted one and now Stevie had got
one. They only put one Manchester United wallchart in for every ten of the
others; they said that didn't they; it was written on the chewing gum packet;
and now Stevie had got one.
He opened it up and looked at it and he could see the creases in the paper where
it had been folded and they made sort of oblongs, like little football pitches,
and he thought if he pulled it a bit it would tear down one of the creases and
that would wipe Stevie's eye for him, but that was a sin, to think that way:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods.
And he hated Stevie for giving him another sin to confess and that was another
sin as well cos you had to love others as you loved yourself. He tried to think
upon the words again:
And at the hour of our death .
but he couldn't; he was looking at the wallchart, all red and
white, and at the young men all smiling back at him, and he looked especially at
the ones who'd just been killed, and how nice and sort of shiny they looked, and
he felt himself smiling cos they were dead, and he felt his dick sticking up on
end in his khaki shorts.
That was it then; he knew. No Good Confession now and the statue of the Virgin
wouldn't wobble afterwards. It was o.k. about hating Stevie and being jealous
and even that funny smiling but he couldn't tell the priest about this other
sin. The priest would think he was a monster or something cos no priest ever got
a hard one on about footballers, leastways not dead ones.
His head was cold now and his stomach kind of cold too and the cold sweat came
off his hands as he folded up the wallchart and passed it back down the line.
Someone came out from the confessional and tried to nudge him over as he was
getting up off his knees and that meant that, if he didn't go over, he could
grab the balls of the lad who bumped him; that was a sort of rule; but he never
did that and he didn't do it now and he went into the confessional and breathed
real deep and shut the door and started almost singing as the door shut:
Bless me, father, for I have sinned.
It is four weeks since my last confession and I have
And that was the easy part over already before his knees had hardly touched the
M.m.m.missed mass four times, father. T.t.taken the name of the L.L.L. . .
Lord thy God in vain, child?
Yes, father, stolen things, father .
What kinds of things, my child?
Sw.. Sw.. sw
Yes, father, from Woolies, father.
And he had used bad language and failed to honour his father and mother and he
had been jealous of Stevie:
C.. c. . c. . coveted my neighbour's w. . w. . w..
Of course, my child. Anything else?
The priest didn't laugh at that. The priest was running his hand through his
hair and all he could see was the dark-redness of the priest's bare hand and the
black outline of the face behind it and the little bits of dust and dandruff
that came spinning off the priest's hand into the light from the little window
above. But it was Bun loaf, alright.
Yes, child, anything else?
It was Bunloaf alright. He wouldn't know who he was but he'd know it was someone
from the school and when he'd heard the other sin he would go around the school
and go into all the classrooms until he saw the boy again. That's what he'd do.
N.. n. . nothing else, father.
Stay quiet, my child, and I'll pray for your stutter.
The priest went droning on with the blessing. Loud, soft, Loud, soft. He
imagined the priest on a swing, now loud as the priest swung up to him, now soft
as he went swinging back and away. And he started to sway backwards and forwards
on his knees in time to the priest so that they nearly, he thought, bumped heads
together, Oops, And he guessed when the end of the prayer was coming and he
breathed in real deep then and he started to force the word up from his chest
and then the priest came swinging up close to him again for a loud "in nomine
patris" and then back away again for a softening "et filii et spiritu sancti"
and the priest held the "ee" for a long time so that he was still saying, half
singing it as he came up close again and then the boy, with his last breath, got
the word out so that priest and boy said together: Amen.
A SPECIAL BUS RIDE
Mary stepped onto the bus and sat in a seat halfway along. She had two pennies
in her hand. A penny for the fare to get to the library and a penny for her bus
fare home. Mary was also carrying a thin brown library book on which every page
there was a picture of rabbits. The bus conductor was upstairs. After a few
seconds the bus moved away from the bus stop and continued on its journey. Mary
sat in the seat and felt very important. She always felt important when she went
to the library, although she couldn't read many of the words in the book, she
liked looking at the pictures. It was a game she would play. Feeling important
and going to and from the library carrying books it made her feel very business
Glancing up Mary saw the bus conductor coming down the stairs of the bus. To her
amazement the conductor was a black man. He was really black. Now Mary had seen
coloured people before, brown people, but this was the first time she had seen
anyone with black skin. There was a man she heard on the radio who said how a
lot of coloured people were coming into the country to live. Mary's mother had
said she felt sorry for the people who were coming here to live, because they
weren't used to our cold weather. Mary had also seen coloured people when she
went shopping with her mother. There was always groups of six or so out shopping
together. The women wore bright clothes and big turban hats. The coloured men
wore suits and trilby hats. Their children were dressed like their parents, in
very bright colours. But those people were brown not black. So Mary sat wide
eyed staring at the bus conductor. Mary thought "His skin is as black as coal.
Like the night sky if there was no stars." The black conductor was at the front
of the bus taking the fare from the passengers. The people would smile politely
at the conductor as they paid their fare. Everyone on the bus was watching him
in a polite way. They would look out the windows then look at the conductor. The
atmosphere in the bus was strange, as though the passengers didn't know what to
do or how to act. They seemed to be so surprised at having a black conductor
that all they could do was to be as polite as possible to the man. But Mary
being a child of eight years didn't know yet about English people's conventional
behaviour. So she just stared openly. She looked at the black man's nose. It was
a flat nose like a boxer's. Mary looked at his lips. They were thick and as he
spoke she could see his teeth. They were as white as milk but -"What’s that
there he's got some gold teeth." Mary couldn't understand how he got gold teeth.
She supposed he must be rich. His eyes were dark brown.
As the black bus conductor moved up the bus taking fares, Mary
could hear him speaking. His English was not very good. The people were talking
slowly and clearly so he could understand what they were saying. The passengers
were trying to be helpful to him but Mary could hear the embarrassment in their
voices. From time to time the conductor looked at Mary but that didn't stop her
from staring at him. She just couldn't stop looking at the black smooth skin of
his face. Then he was at her side waiting for her bus fare. Without speaking she
gave him the penny. Her finger touched the palm of his hand and she felt the
cream coloured skin which to her seemed firm and strong. The lines in the palms
of his hand, the lines some people can read the future by, were of a brown
colour. With a look of amazement the conductor stared at Mary. It was as though
he had never seen anyone who had such fair skin before. Mary's hair was shoulder
length. It was blond, the colour women try to get their hair with the aid of dye
from a bottle. Her complexion was that of an English rose - very delicate. It
was plain to see Mary was going to be a beautiful woman. The conductor moved on,
taking the people's bus fares. Mary didn't turn around to watch him as that
would have been rude. So she had to wait until he came down the other side of
the bus, then she would be able to see him again.
Sat waiting, Mary thought about the colour black. People wore black when they
went to a funeral. Black was the colour of death. The sky went black when there
was a thunderstorm. Ladies who serve in gown shops wore black but her mother
often said black clothes were smart. Mary could see the conductor again. Once
more she studied him and decided she liked the black conductor. The bus was
coming to Mary's stop as she reached out to ring the bell for the bus to stop.
The conductor who was now standing on the platform of the bus, rang his bell for
her. Turning to look at the conductor Mary smiled and the conductor smiled back.
Mary stepped from the bus onto the pavement and stood looking at the black man.
The bus was waiting for the traffic to pass by. The conductor stood on the
platform of the bus looking at Mary. Both were smiling.
As the bus moved away. Mary stayed where she was watching the conductor and then
she held her hand up in a wave and the black conductor waved back. The bus went
out of sight. Mary knew that she had just had a very special bus ride, but she
couldn't understand why. She just knew it was special. Mary turned and walked
into the library.
THE SKATEBOARD KID
Down the road the skateboard kid,
turns a corner oh boy what a skid.
Zoom! what was that?
why the skateboard kid.
Down the subway he doth go,
look at the vapour trail, look at him go!
Such speed is so deadly upon a high ridge,
but such speed belongs to the skateboard kid.
Out the other end and into a wheely,
he is smart and he is speedy.
Could you do such daring things,
spinning, turning and all kinds of things.
He rides straight, he rides and spins,
he rides like the skateboard king.
Would you do such daring things,
I know who can, the skateboard king.
He rides on air, he rides and spins,
he rides like the new born wind.
Who is this boy, who turns and skids,
are you so dumb it's the skateboard kid.
The crowds gather to see this kid,
the one and only skateboard kid.
They are amazed at his great stunts,
they try themselves, but boy what a thump.
Who is this boy they all exclaimed,
who puts us in bumps and himself in fame.
He takes off his mask and looks at the peoples
they all cried out! Its Winston Jones
THE MATHS EXAM
This is it
This is the day I've been dreading
The moment has come.
There's no turning back.
THE MATHS EXAM.
The teacher gives the papers out.
Do I detect a gleam of joy in your eye?
"No really sir you can keep it"
I would not like to feel I was depriving you, give
it to someone else.
Oh. I see... I've gotta do it...
Egg and bacon butterflies stir within me,
Oh Heavens, how am I supposed to know what x equals,
is turned upside down.
Still I've written my name.
Surely thats worth something.
Why cant this day be done?
Heavens... Half an hour gone.
I know I shouldn't have decorated my name in such an
"Sir I couldn't have the answer sheet, could I?
So I didn't think I could.
GOING INTO HOSPITAL
When they put me in the ambulance, my friend from across the street was coming
home from school, I think he thought he'd never see me no more, But his face
didn't gape. Dying is dying is being taken away. They put a rubber balloon round
my arm and pumped it up, just to see, something on a clock, to see I was
alright, ok? Like checking my temperature they said. And along the corridors we
went, wheels freewheeling, porter pushing and doors opening and closing and
opening, and opening to a bright white light. Will it hurt nurse, will it hurt.
She's smiling and smiling and saying soft Irish: now just, now just, now just
count to ten. And the men standing and looking and not looking and laughing and
talking about golf. Count to ten? that's her job, that's what she's paid for, why
should I, why should I, why should I join in? Eight . . . nine . . . ten . . .
ha. made it . . . . just
Never met God but woke choking, swallowing tight. Past bed after bed at the end
of the ward; the light. So sore, sore throat, tube up my nose and round and down
and up and hurting hard and dry out of mouth, driving out of mind. Waiting all
night with a thirst, now I know how Jesus Christ felt, and when I ask for water,
she may as well give me what they give gave to him, she gives me nothing. Not
till the doctor comes round. So suck the wet flannel dry as can be with one eye
open on the desk with the light yellow and the sitting still nurse.
My mother was so ashamed, she said, saying what I said, wanting a jam butty for
the first meal of the day, post op. You'd think I fed him nothing else, like a
little urchin boy. The look the doctor gave me. On Saturday my dad came with
loads of other dads, the Grand National was on, the telly, on the ward. Mr Oxo
won. The sick were all alone, not many mums, this their day, off. Day off in
time of need, making sure we wasn't spoiled, mine made sure of that, I was never
ever spoiled, not like some. New toys every day. We're too poor for that. But
never as poor as one crying kid who cried and cried and his mum and dad never
came only his gran and she never brought toys only sat and jingled keys in front
of his eyes; she never realised he was too old for that. It made me cry and cry.
Whenever there was trouble they sent for staff. Send for staff.
Staff was strict and starched and jaw hard, concrete gob without a smile, apart
from once. One day feeling better than ever than ever, I cried with mum and dad
at the end of the bed asking why? Just the sight of staff with her strait black
eyes looking like just a job to her. She saw all and came and asked what's wrong?
She smiled. I lie right away. I want to go home for my birthday, going to be
seven next week. And she smiles again saying she would do what she could do and
when the doctor came next day he smiled as well and said ok. Ok well ok. Ok and
thumbs up, that was the thing to do, swinging to the sixties, clean cut and
clubbing it, sports car outside. Ok. That was ok, ok, that was their way, that
was to be expected, smiled upon and jested with, the old on your marks jet set
and go and run the four minute mile, have a good time son and thanks once again
for curing my lad. Know you'll make room at the top.
While you wait for dad, I'll tell you a thing or two. What you have had out is
best out than in, a little worm thing that we used to use when we ate grass. We
used to have tails as well, didn't you know? Well it can't be proved or
disproved but they say we all come from monkeys, imagine that, you didn't know
about that, though you wouldn't you are only seven, and oh yes look here on your
card like so many from around here, you are Catholic, I'm a long way from home,
I'm from Surrey. So sorry, I'm from surrey, surrey down south.
And when it was time to go, we went, down the stairs not using the lift, my
stitches itching into the freshest air. Not so long ago aunt Lil died dead, they
knew not how to operate then and when the appendix burst, it burst and it
poisoned you and there you were. Dead. Thank God for the welfare state.
"But what can we do? Get ready to die."
and in the blast of bullet tank and gas
children get ready to die
children! babies infants almost
who should know only secure love song and play
a bed a roof the certainty of happy morning not this
of long lost
THIS IS MURDER - CHRIST MORE!
this is infanticide!
it is a father who sights so carefully
it is a mother who keeps a gun beneath the stair
the baby target bleeding down the alley
was their future 'boy' their eternal 'laundry girl'
but chose to die instead
the stained sticky dust poor pillow
for the sleepy shattered head
and what can we do?
nothing I say but weep and wonder
at such early courage
- who join the adult game declare
an end to childhood –
"not ready yet" declares 'The Boss' - The Father
already grown these brave brave babes
Should they live that long
A LANCASHIRE MAN REMEMBERS
Born into a large working class family - my father was a bricklayer and stone
mason and my mother a weaver - we grew up in a real working class district in
which poverty was never far from the door. I started work at 12 years of age
working what was known as halftime. By the time I was 13, I was being employed
as a full-timer and putting in 551/2 hours a week. This meant that your daily
'education' was, in the main, with adults and in consequence one developed an
old head on young shoulders. You picked up items of conversation that were not
always advisable, but you also learnt about trade unionism at a very early age.
My mother 'joined' me as a trade union member when I was 13. I took part in my
first strike when I was around 14 years of age and while I did not know what it
was about, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest from work and not having to get up in
the morning at the unearthly hour of 5 a.m.
My schooling was at a Roman Catholic School and religion was a big part of one's
education. The quoting of the 'punch line' in a parable was deemed to indicate
the depth of your knowledge. So I remember one day my father was threatening the
three older boys forcefully and violence seemed likely, when one of the younger
boys suddenly quoted a scripture line: "father forgive them for they know not
what they do."
I had been expelled from the Labour Party just after the General Strike of 1926
for criticising Ramsey Macdonald, and I joined the CP. I attended most of the
open air meetings that were held by the local branch. At one such meeting the
best local speaker was addressing a decent sized audience and exposing the very
prevalent poverty that existed. Suddenly a youngster of less than 12 years of
age, after making sure he had plenty of space to get away, asked if he could put
a question. He was told that it was unusual to take questions before the end of
the meeting but what was his question. "How does milk get in coconuts?" he
asked, and the crowd laughed loudly. But they turned to cheers when the speaker
replied, "I am not concerned how milk gets into coconuts, but I am concerned how
to get milk into children's bellies."
My brother and I, who both worked at the same firm, refused to guarantee that we
would donate two shillings and six pence back to the firm every week out of each
pound we earned. We got the sack and became unemployed.
There was Arthur, a young man of very sparse proportions who might have been
mistaken for an advertisement for a famine. He comes down the Labour Exchange
steps to buy his Daily Worker and is asked the inevitable question: "How's
things Arthur?" "I had a big disappointment when I went home last week," says
Arthur. "Why. What happened?" Well, when I walked into the house, I said to the
wife, 'There's a good smell, what is it?' 'There's a hot cinder fell on the cat'
she said. So a good dinner didn't work out." said Arthur.
Outside the Labour Exchange, Jimmy comes to purchase his Friday Daily Worker.
"We've got to beat this Means Test" he says. "Things are so bad in our house
that the bloody mice are coming out of their holes and shouting, 'Down with the
The 'religious' man was trying to show how Christ could solve all our problems
and quoting instances to prove this. How he was a man who through his closest
followers went into the highways and byways with messages for the people. "What
was it Jesus told his flock?" Promptly the young Daily Worker seller said, "Buy
the Daily Worker". And to every other question raised such as "What did Moses
tell the People Of Israel?" the same old slogan came from the paper seller. "Buy
the Daily Worker."
Two Communist Party Members, man and wife, were fearless in carrying out any
needed activity, and in this 'democratic' society of ours unemployment and
victimisation were rife. But they never faltered in their determination to go
the whole hog. Not being able to pay their rates was a secondary matter to them.
This resulted in them being served a summons. It was delivered by hand.
The young man saw the delivery man coming, and was waiting behind the door when
he arrived and shoved the legal document underneath the door.
No sooner had it been put under the door when the young man pushed it back. This
went on three or four times before the delivery man picked up the letter and
walked away muttering, "And I wouldn't pay rates for a draughty house like that
Most people seeing Barney for the first time would probably have found him a bit
off-putting. I could never quite make out how old he was but thought him to be
about fifty, but that again might have been because of the way he dressed. His
clothes always look tatty and he was by no means handsome - quite the contrary -
for he had a worn looking, sallow, swarthy skinned face with dark eyes looking
slightly blurred, his thick black hair streaked with grey was untidy, with the
fringe on his forehead almost touching the black bushy eyebrows, the nose was
thick and the mouth wide which when he smiled or grinned, revealed big strong
yellowy teeth. His left knee was permanently bent, a legacy of active service in
World War One. This caused him to walk a bit lopsidedly, and his mates would
say, "Barney is never without 'is ups and downs".
In spite of his appearance however Barney was a good sort, quite fond of kids
and generous to them. Whenever the kids spotted him they would rush towards him
shouting 'Gie us some money Barney", and he would give a big grin saying, "You
little buggers know Owd Barney dontcher", and he would dive into his pockets for
any loose change he might have, sort out all the small stuff, pennies and
halfpennies and hand it over saying, "Nah share it aht fair among yer" and for
these actions alone Barney could have become the Pied Piper of Hunslet. Of
course Barney couldn't play a pipe but he smoked one, a clay pipe, but what he
smoked in it was anybody's guess. Some thought it was horse shit, and most noses
would wrinkle when they got a whiff of the smoke. Parents knew about him giving
money to their kids but didn't worry because they knew that Barney had a genuine
love for children and he didn't give money to them for ulterior motives.
He was quite a character and there were many stories told about him and some of
his habits. My father frequented the same pub as Barney and it was from him that
I heard some of the stories. One well known one was that when Barney was in a
pub and wanted to go for a pee, before going, if there was beer in his mug, he
would spit in it, then take a pencilled note which he kept in his waist-coat
pocket and place it alongside the mug. The note read, "I've spit in this beer -
Barney". Once when he had done this he returned to find added to it the words, "So've
I - Buggerlugs".
Barney was fond of making wagers for drinks, challenging other drinkers to do
what he could do, as for example drinking their own urine. I don't know how many
pints he wanted for doing this, but in doing so it placed him on the same level
as the Prime Minister of India, Mr Desai who is reputed to do the same thing but
not for beer. I don't think Barney made a regular habit of drinking his
re-cycled beer. Another challenge he used to make was to bite off the heads of
He never seemed short of a bob or two, but he didn't appear to have a regular
job as he could be seen around the streets when most other men would be working,
and in the evenings he would be sat in the pub. One of his peculiar habits was
the wearing of cycle clips though he hadn't a bike, and also he carried in a
capacious pocket inside his jacket a rolled up bag which looked like a half
sized kit bag.
Nearly every night he could be seen drinking, playing draughts, dominoes or
darts and telling yearns. However he did have a job of sorts which entailed
working at night time for various people in the locality.
One night between the hours of 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. he was seen by a young copper
emerging from the back door of a warehouse carrying a bulging bag. The copper
stopped him demanding to know what he was doing. Now Barney was not over
friendly towards coppers and in reply to the question said, "Mindin me awn
bloody business". "Oh you are, are you, what have you got in that bag?. Open it
up I want to see what's in it. "Ahm not opening me bag" said Barney. "In that
case you'd better have a walk with me to the Police Station, you're under
arrest". "R eight o' then".
On arrival at the Police Station, the constable told the duty sergeant the
circumstances which led to him arresting Barney on suspicion of theft and
Barney's refusal to show him what was in the bag -
The sergeant himself was a stranger to Barney, and he came from behind the desk
and curtly ordered Barney to untie his bag and empty the contents to see what it
contained. "All reight if I empty it 'ere on't floor? said Barney, "Yes get on
with it". "Reight o' "and Barney untied the cord then upturned the bag out of
which rushed a dozen or more rats of various sizes, as Barney made for the door
to the accompaniment of yells from the coppers, WHO DIDN'T KNOW THAT BARNEY WAS
OUR LOCAL RAT-CATCHER!
Barney lost a few bob for his night's work. He used to get 3d for every rat's
tail he turned in, but he said it was worth it to see the cops faces when the
rats rushed out of the bag, adding "in any case t'rats ud feel more at hoam in't
End of the tail.
In 'Voices 19, Spring 1979', there was a short story by Pat Dallimore called 'A
Bag on the Beach".
Why it was written and how it got into 'Voices' I don't know, but having read
it, that old feeling deep in my pit was there.
The same feeling when I was told "You killed our Lord!" Later, when told to go
back to where I'd come from, it was there. When my father translated at the
wireless set, for us kids, Hitler's wild words about the 'Juden', it was there.
When I saw Mosley march in Manchester, it was there. When I saw Martin Webster
and his mob give the fascist salute in Hyde, Bolton and Stockport, it was there.
When I saw a coloured worker abused on the London underground, it was there.
I do not expect to get this feeling when I read 'Voices!'
What is this story? A woman leaves a bag on the beach. The honeymoon couple on
the adjoining deck chairs take the bag and its £2,000 and keep it. The children
at the end chorus "Keep it!" A simple immoral tale? Although it need not be.
Probably any writer in 'Voices' could use this basic theme and produce a
reasonable story, depending on their skills. Pat Dallimore is not without skill.
The rich colouring of the Jewish Character gives the story a fascist ideology.
"Big fat woman - very black hair - curled and permed - thick makeup - crimson
lips - she's a Jew because she has a big nose". "Thick gold-hooped earrings,
diamonds, precious stones, etc. You could tell the jewels were real", and of
course "big brown crocodile bag".
The man who kept the money that was not his is described as a "Very masterful
man" and his unwilling accomplice was "A nice woman, very quiet and refined". Oh
boy! What a story for 'Voices'! Willie went to town on old Shylock but at least
gave him a few good lines. You remember the one (beloved by all oppressed
peoples) "We also bleed when we're pricked don't we?" or something like that.
Truth be known, not many years back my Auntie Katie lost her husband Ike, a
seller of fake jewellery. When she was told she had cancer she sold the house.
Pasted her overweight spotty face with a heavy hand - flooded her body with
Ike's paste fakes and stuffed all her money into her big bag. Then she took a
taxi to the sands, left her bag besides "a nice young couple" and walked into
You have asked me if you should print the letters you have received about the
story I wrote called A Bag On The Beach. Well, I don't know what to say to you
about it. If I say, yes, print it, then it would seem to people I have to defend
my story also myself, while I know my story and myself have nothing to be
defended for. But if I say, don't print, it will seem to people I am weak and a
coward who can't stand up for myself.
I must say this, the letters you sent me copies of were well written, and did
the job they were intended to do by the writers. It hurt and upset me to read
such words of anger, malice and vicious reasoning which showed a skill I know I
could never want to equal.
So I say it is up to you and your group to decide what to do, and not me. After
all it's your magazine. If you do print and you do think my story Jane's
Birthday will interest people, by all means put it in as well. But if you do
decide to print those letters I would like you to put this letter in Voices in
full as well, because I can tell you are all going to have an educated
intellectual debate. In fact you have already started one haven't you?
There were these three mates. Every afternoon they met in the Bar at 4.30 on the
dot, had a drink or two, sang songs, discussed football, got into arguments, and
Bloke number 1 was 'S'Empty', he got this name because the workmen that caught
the bus from the same stop to go home called him that. S'Empty worked in a
foundry with bloke number 2. His mates suspected that he had TB, owing to all
the pingas he drank, never less than six, because of the foundry, all the heat
and smoke. When S'Empty coughed it was for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch
and he nearly always ended up spitting blood. He lived by himself on the
outskirts, in a 7 x 7 room with no shower or privy. S'Empty had in his room a
chamber pot and a big aluminium basin to make up for these deficiencies. The
rent for the room was 400 cruzeiros and he was paying it into the Agents in
order not to get behind.
He only had one meal a day, at the factory, where the dinner was full of
saltpetre and cost an hour and a half's work. The same went for bloke number 2,
'Spade Great', who worked in the same foundry. Spade Great was the opposite of
S'Empty, who had always been small, weak and thin. Great was big-built and
muscular, violent-tempered and his skin black so it shone. Great thought a lot
of S'Empty. He had a room next door to his friend and put up with the same dirty
conditions. He only ate once a day and in the factory, too. There were times
they thought of cooking something up at home, but when they counted their funds
they gave up the idea, because their wages put together came to no more than two
thousand four hundred and if they were going to spend money eating at home
they'd have to lay off the cachacas in the Bar, and that was something they'd
never do, because then what would become of bloke number 3, 'Sweet Talk', who
lived in another part on the outskirts, the Coconut Tree slum?
They had met Sweet Talk in the same bar. The latter was being given one hell of
a beating by the Bar heavies; when Great witnessed the massacre, he didn't want
to know who was in the right, he hit out all round, broke bottles, turned over
tables and put everyone running for their lives until the Portuguese owner went
to the Police which was nearby. Result: Spade Great, Sweet Talk and S'Empty did
three days inside. Sweet Talk was all patched up. He let on why he had been
getting the stick: he had had a few and was going to make off without paying
because he had heard one of Chico Buarque's records which stated that God took
care of bar bills. Portugal's boys weren't happy being paid by the Almighty and
tanned Sweet Talk's hide for him.
Sweet Talk is a typical Sao Paulo wide-boy, medium height, thin, talkative,
drinker and bad payer. He had one peculiarity, a high, thin voice, which
sometimes came in handy for him and sometimes didn't.
By the time the three had done their stint they were steady mates. Sweet Talk
worked in a shoe factory, and came out the same time as Spade Great and S'Empty,
four o'clock, and ever since that first accidental meeting they'd head for the
Bar of the fight. Portugal and his boys didn't like it, but when Great shouted
for Portugal to bring cachaca everybody would run around at once to look after
him. S'Empty would enjoy this and dig Sweet Talk in the ribs, when Great beat
the boys with his shout.
And so they lived, drinking, getting up to the odd trick, and working in the
foundry and the shoe factory. For S'Empty, that was his world. The only place he
felt he was somebody was in the Bar and when it was time to catch the bus to go
home. Yes, when he caught the bus, it was S'Empty's hour, he was the hero of the
workmen and women and students who caught the same crowded bus - that is, when
they caught the bus. But S'Empty was the star of the show every evening at 6.15
or 6.20 when he left Great and Sweet Talk in the Bar. Although Great lived near
S'Empty he didn't like full buses, he only went sitting, later on, that was. But
when he got mad, whether because of that fool boss of his or because of a
skinful of cachaca, he went fighting, shoving, blokes that were comfortably
hanging off the platform, straps and windows out of his way and in he went, they
called him a black son-of-a-bitch, a punk bastard, and so on. But they didn't
Sweet Talk would just look on, laughing. He took a different bus and didn't mind
when he got home. His business after the drinks and rap with the boys was
watching girls. Whenever he managed to catch some bit's eye, Sweet Talk was
there at the lady's feet before you could say knife, compliments flying, charmed
by her beauty, laying it on so thick that the times he didn't get a slap in the
face and telling off were rare. Then if the Jady's lord and master turned up,
Sweet Talk would say he was selling smuggled lighters and produce his 'cricket',
or that he was selling ladies' stockings on commission, next thing he'd be an
amateur stage actor trying to get experience, and what have you.
Great wasn't this sort, he was respectable, never chatted up women, not even if
a black chick, afro hairstyle and pants skin-tight on her bottom, was laughing
and joking with him. Great was courting another woman, his boss's wife, he got
to know her when he had to take the boss's shopping home for him, that day Great
almost punched the bastard, but when they tipped him that the lady was hot
stuff, Great went. And so she was. She went all out for the physique of the
spade and the only reason she didn't let him have it that day was because it
would have looked a bit too forward, but there didn't lack for other occasions,
and this was why Great didn't have anything to do with other women and certainly
not that black rubbish. Great, he was going with a white woman and she was a
beauty and every now and then she'd soften the coon up, slip him a note or two,
and it was with this LSD that he paid his cachcas from the end of the month
S'Empty almost never talked about women, when he needed a bit he saved up for a
visit to Queen's Lane, there at No. 16. Sometimes even they weren't having any,
not even with him paying.
S'Empty felt he really was ugly. On Saturdays and Sundays when he didn't go to
work, he would stay at home all day, listening to his radio that he won on the
raffle, listening to tango, samba and violin music, dreaming he was a singer in
Bahia, of being a sports commentator, of winning the football pools, that he was
good-looking; dreaming of being good, being bad, having a lot of money, a pile
of money so he could pull Great and Sweet Talk out of that rotten life; dreaming
of being a famous conductor, a factory owner, a great gangster, dreaming of
S'Empty's pride and joy was the bus stop, first thing in the morning and between
6.15 and 6.20 at night. His big moment was seeing it come into the stop, that
old bus with the bodies bursting out of it and everybody saying, "Blimey. it's
packed." He would say: "That am' nothing, it's empty." He'd shout: "It's empty!"
"S'eeeempty!" And everyone would look at him as S'Empty took a flying leap,
every sense bent on catching hold of anything solid in the bus's body. S'Empty
searched desperately for his humanity in that rotting framework. He would hear
the cheering and clapping way past the stop, and he gloried in it. He was
somebody, he was S'Empty, he was the greatest S'Empty living up to that moment,
the King of the S'Empies!
Great and Sweet Talk enjoyed this moment and felt proud to be S'Empty's friends.
They knew as well as the drivers on that line that S'Empty wouldn't be at that
bus stop after 6.20. In fact, you could tell the time by whether or not S'Empty
was around. Not that he needed to leave right then, but it was just at 6.1 5 and
6.20 that the workers from the factories around there went down to the stop and
made a crowd worthy of envy on the parts of the managers of small Rio football
teams like Bangu or St Christophers - it was the best audience S'Empty could
arrange. He never missed a jump, a leap, a flight . . . . he caught buses
moving, buses stationary, from in front, from behind. He was the pure joy of the
people in that square.
Come Friday, like every Friday, the factory crowd wanting to get home early, the
square was packed. Well, that Friday was payday, and of course the folks were
packing the pubs and bars, everyone making a rare old din and spending whatever
cash they had on them, buying rounds and splitting the bill. S'Empty, Sweet Talk
and Great were no exception to the rule. They drank cachaca straight, with
lemon, with blackcurrent, they drank cocktails, brandy and beer, they ate
mortadella, black olives and hard-boiled eggs, and they carried on like this
until 6.15, chatting about various things, from football, the foundry, shoes and
bosses to women, this last topic being Sweet Talk's speciality.
When 6.15 came up, S'Empty left his share on the counter, looked out in the
direction the bus was coming, loaded as usual, and leapt out.
"I'm off. The fans are out in force tonight, alright!"
Spade Great wanted to tell him not to go, to stay around a bit, because S'Empty
had put back more than his usual and there was no sense him risking himself with
that crowd out there. It was no good, S'Empty saw the bus coming, got into
position, ran - the people were cheering - jumped: he felt his hands close on
emptiness, felt the handrail, window, metalwork, slipping rapidly away leaving
nothing but air in his grasping hands .
He fell. There was a general murmur of disappointment, and then silence, their
hero had failed, he's missed, S'Empty had fallen! Great and Sweet Talk, who had
seen everything, were speechless, pale, sad; Sweet Talk wept to see his friend
there on the ground, all dirty, losing the only thing that made him feel human.
It was already 6.25. S'Empty got up. There were boos, whistles, for the people
would never forgive a hero who had failed them. It was the end for S'Empty as a
As he walked back into the Bar Portugal's boys laughed out loud, a glad,
funereal laugh. It was vengeance. He leant against the counter, ordered a 'Wild
Horse'. Sweet Talk and Spade Great didn't say anything, they just leant beside
him. The big negro felt a strange feeling when he saw tears in S'Empty's eyes,
he felt like destroying the whole rotten joint with his fist, but he kept quiet.
S'Empty knocked back the Wild Horse in one. Paid, left the Bar and got to the
stop, dumb, empty, hateful. Saw a crowded bus coming, maybe the fullest bus he'd
ever seen coming in his life. He sensed the chance of a comeback, a
The bus came roaring towards him on the skew, leaning right over to one side
with its backend and bottom step scraping dust off the tarmac, the s'empties
larking around dragging their old shoes along the hard ground.
It swung in, dragon-headed, blazing-eyed: S'Empty ran, the people watched and
thought, if he failed with the last one he won't do it on this. S'Empty sensed
this feeling in the people, ran, jumped, flew, his white plastic bag with the
Santos FC emblem flashed. A thrill went through the crowd, like the supporters
throb when the home team gets a goal. The King wept, shouted, laughed. The negro
and Sweet Talk hugged each other, swore at Portugal, banged their glasses on the
bar and ordered cachaca twice. Then they saw their friend pass, dangling from a
window, barely holding on by one hand with the rest of him tightly balanced. As
they went up the rise S'Empty turned his body round to the front, caught the
wind in his face, rested the tip of his left foot on the bumper, then greeted
the applause from those inside the bus who had witnessed him make the loveliest
jump of all in that strange kingdom.
The dragon hurtled on, powerful, roaring. S'Empty was having a great time, he
wasn't scared of the lamp posts passing inches from his head and right shoulder,
even if he had been he couldn't have done much about it because the bus already
had three or four times more inside than was allowed on the notice up in front .
. . S'Empty was celebrating. He felt free, fulfilled, somebody, somebody,
somebody. The bus took the downhill stretch with the ninety-degree bend to the
left at a speed that wasn't exactly economical on diesel oil. The pace was
impressive, it inspired fear in the other s'empties who were hanging on there
like rumps of beef in a butcher's van. And that's just what was coming round
that ninety-degree bend .
The old dragon was running like a formula 1 racing car, the other s'empties
started to get panicky, shouting and pushing, making for the doors, trying to
get inside the bus. Things were getting desperate, the bend coming up, the van
getting nearer and nearer, looming up, they didn't want to leave their carcasses
out there on that road, they shoved, swore desperately, push, push, they were
But S'Empty, no, S'Empty was strong, he was brave, he wasn't going to run inside
with the rest. Get in? What for? That old van on the bend? That's nothing,
that's just a little old van that he, S'Empty was going to decorate on its
bonnet with the tip of his scruffy old shoe, he'd have the laugh on those
fellows squashed up there inside. He could still taste that last Wild Horse,
mixed up with the brandies and cachaca and blackcurrant. He didn't know what
they were shouting for inside the bus, telling him to get in, come in off there,
jump, get in, get in! What for? He was fine up there, wind in his face, the van
coming, laughing, van coming, shouting, van coming, crowing out his glory:
Now, it was now he was going to scrape the top of the van with the tip of his
shoe. S'Empty roared with laughter . . . tasted the Wild Horse - . . stretched
out his foot .
The driver pulled up yards past the bend, got down, looked, saw the scratch mark
running right the way along the side of the bus, saw himself getting his cards.
The people came running out, they left the bus by the entry door and they
weren't running to get out of paying the fare. They looked: the bus would
go on; but S'Empty wouldn't be going on; he'd stay there.
He stayed there, head, guts and stomach gaping, heart emptied of blood, lungs
emptied of TB. Arms spread-eagled, breast torn open, head split apart. There was
a sort of smile on S'Empty's toothless mouth.
Some funeral procession began to pass slowly by. People in cars looked at
S'Empty, cars with only one person in them, buses looked at S'Empty, s'empties
looked at S'Empty.
They might have noticed a tall negro, powerful and drunk, crying on the steps of
a bus that had no s'empties in it. It was Great, he didn't get down to salute
his friend, he wanted to, but he couldn't because the fuzz were taking care of
S'Empty and Great had a record this long and just then he couldn't be S'Empty's
He knew it was S'Empty by the white plastic satchel with the Santos FC emblem,
gritty with foundry dust.
But there would be a successor of S'Empty to cry: