cover size 210 x 148 mm (A5)
This winter marks ten years since Ben Ainley started VOICES off, and five years
since I began to take over the reins, so it's probably as good a time as any for
me to resign as editor. There is no one single person in line to take over, but
there is a pretty solid VOICES collective here in Manchester and a new editor
will no doubt emerge now that the opening has been made.
The negative reason for resigning the one that towers over me right now is
that my full - time job with its long hours no longer allows me even the
pretence of keeping up with the work on VOICES. In fact, for some time now, the
backlog has been growing steadily.
In the short term, I feel that the Federation of Worker Writers could do more to
help solve this problem, now that it has got some kind of a paid worker again.
VOICES is the one area of the Federation's work nationally which is both
tangible and potentially self-supporting, and more weight should be given to
those two considerations.
In the long term, the real solution to this kind of problem is shorter working
hours then we can all be potential writers. People need to value their leisure
time if they are to fight for more of it, and here VOICES has always played its
small part. But it is equally true that people need much more leisure time to
give them the chance to be creative as opposed to merely recovering in time
for the next day's work. British workers work longer hours than in any other
country in Western Europe. In fact we are the only country where actual hours of
work have increased rather than decreased in recent years. Most trade unions are
trying hard to win their members for changing this situation.
I shall be carrying on as a TGWU branch secretary (which, compared with the job
of running VOICES, is like falling off a log) and, hopefully, starting to write
a few stories of my own again. Meanwhile, the VOICES Editorial Board would
welcome any newcomers who want to get involved and do a job of work.
Finally, I would like to thank particularly those VOICES readers and
contributors whose support has been unwavering over the years, regardless of
whether we have published their own writings or replied promptly to their
letters. Even when you're up to your armpits in paperwork, people like that make
the job seem worthwhile.
RICK GWILT January 1982
The editorial board wish to extend its thanks to Rick Gwilt for all the time and
energy poured into Voices over the past five years. We're sure we're among the
many who hope he will feel able to stay in touch with Voices in the future.
Long legged dancers
Stiff in repose
Stately in minuet
High on tip toes
Where did you see them
These peaceful gazelles
Dancing for Sadlers Wells
Or Royal Ballet? No!
At the dockside
Loading and clearing
Goods from all ships
Dancing in step.
(Liverpool 8 Workshop)
the sky is unzipped
by a slow-motion gull.
Andrew Darlington (Ossett, Yorkshire)
At one time I loved you so much
That I wished all the troubles in your life
Would fall upon me, and leave you free of them;
This despite you being another man's wife.
It gave some meaning to my unrequited love.
But now when I see you I cannot understand
What possessed me. Though I wish you no harm
I hope you will take your own problems in hand.
Strange how when you're young, people seem odd to you. It's as if you
notice the most eccentric characteristics and dismiss the common factors. Ethel
was one of those people to me when I was about twelve.
In the mining village where I lived there were 'corner' shops everywhere and
several times a day 'mobile shops' would noisily invade the street. Hand bells
were rung, hooters were pressed, chimes were sounded in order to encourage the
miner's families to part with their money. One of these mobiles, a greengrocer,
was a sight not to be missed. The grocery cart was pulled by an old bedraggled
horse, saved from the glue factory many years before. The father and son who
owned the business looked like the original models for 'Steptoe and Son',
denying the fact that, as far as making money was concerned, they were as sharp
as Soho spivs.
When the cart came into the street one of the men would ring a bell and all of
the smaller kids would run out shouting:
"Glanvilles here, Glanvilles here,
Half a pound of rotten spuds
And a couple of bottles of beer."
On their heels would come the hordes of dogs and cats which always lived in this
type of community, sniffing and waiting for a tit-bit to be dropped.
Glanville's cart always stopped first outside the house where Ethel lived. The
old man would go in for a cup of tea while his son would humbly in Uriah Heep
fashion serve all and sundry. In between their weekly visits Ethel sold
cigarettes, matches, crisps and sweets for them, illegally of course, so her and
old man Glanville always had some totting up to do.
Although I disliked Glanville junior for his stooping manner, rubbing hands and
greasy hair, I felt sorry for him. He never got a cup of tea. The old man was
usually in with Ethel for about half an hour. By the time he came out, pushing
his wobbly gut before him, Uriah would have done the three stops around the
green and be waiting at the end of the road.
I knew Ethel never wore any knickers, we all knew. Mum said she was sure that
Ethel must suffer from dreadful piles. When I first found out it fascinated me.
I used to watch her hobble down the street with her always bare fire-tanned legs
and wonder. Didn't she get cold? She wasn't fat, more like a bumpy, triangular
shape, thin pointed head and face and a large bum with tree trunk legs just
about holding her up.
Her hair always used to amaze me. She wore it severely parted on one side and
then pinned down just above her left ear with loads of hair grips. It came just
below her ears and then stopped suddenly like a large chisel. She was very ugly.
I remember thinking she was a witch when I was very small and I kept out of her
way, especially at Halloween.
So when I thought of the knickerless Ethel there was never any hint in my
thoughts of sex. Not like with Ava Gardener, stories about her being
bare-bottomed used to be funny in that uncomfortable, sex-forbidden age before
puberty. But Ethel, it just never occurred to me.
Number 47, where Ethel lived, was a barren patch. My dad used to clip her hedges
for her, mum gave her plants and showed her how to grow vegetables but still the
garden looked uncared for. The inside of her house was stark. Great bare walls,
always in the process of being redecorated, were kept sickly pale like a
doctor's waiting room. Even when everyone else in our street was up to their
eyes in H.P. for carpets Ethel stuck to linoleum with just the odd worn rug here
I was often sent round to Ethel's for cigarettes and sweets, but even at twelve,
entering Ethel's domain filled me with apprehension. It was so cold and
unfriendly. Our house was always full of colour, bright wallpaper, carpets and
curtains. Mum had so many payment books she kept a special tin for them. Going
round to Ethels was like walking into a witch's oven, you took your life in your
own hands. Mum said I had too much imagination.
The back door to number 47 was always unlocked. It led into the washroom, then
the kitchen. Oddly enough Ethel was one of the few women in our street who
actually used her front room. In virtually every other house the front room was
kept as the showpiece, only used when visitors came or the priest called. But
Ethel could usually be found in the front. Knowing this I used to sneak in the
back and look round the kitchen, hoping to see something worth telling the gang
about. When I was small I looked for broomsticks and evidence of spells, but as
I got older my looking became less definite. I suppose I was just curious. There
was no doubt that Ethel was a strange one. Her husband had died when I was very
young and, unlike other widows in the neighbourhood, she'd never been out in the
evening since, except at Christmas. I wondered what she got up to, all on her
own, she didn't have a television and she didn't enjoy reading. Perhaps she had
bricked her hubby up in the house and got him out from time to time for a chat.
One Friday, when Glanville's cart was right down the end of the street, my dad
sent me to get some cigarettes. I said I'd get them from Ethel, who only lived
two doors away, but my dad specifically said to go to the cart. I wondered
vaguely if this was because he owed money to Ethel but decided it couldn't be as
he was always telling mum off about H.P. and credit.
When I got out of our gate I could see that Uriah had a large queue on so I
decided to sneak into number 47. I looked round to make sure that dad wasn't
watching me out of the window and then nipped down Ethel's path. I knew old man
Glanville would be there and I thought I might catch them planning dirty deeds
or counting piles of money. I always found it exciting eavesdropping on people
and observing them without being seen. I made a habit of it and innumerable
clouts round the head had never discouraged me.
Everything was quiet in the washroom and kitchen so I stood for a while
listening. I felt like an intruder who could at any second be pounced on. The
door leading to the front room was ajar, I crept up to it and peeped round.
There was a short hallway between the kitchen and the front room, but nothing
stirred. I waited. Faint grumbling sounds and wheezing drifted through so I
gently pulled the door further open and tiptoed into the hallway. At that moment
I heard Ethel speak and I froze.
"C'mon ya daft bugger, don't take all day, what's up with ya?" she said, her
voice seemed wierd and breathless, as if she'd been smoking non-stop since dawn.
"Be patient Ethel, you'll put me off me stroke." Old Glanville sounded worn out.
I could hear a bit of thumping which definitely didn't sound like money being
counted. They obviously were not aware of my presence so curiosity got the
better of me and I decided to find out what they were up to. It might make a
good story for later on. The gang was always interested in Ethel's coming and
goings, she'd been part of our communal fantasies for as long as I could
I'd worked out long ago, from snooping on my mum and dad, that if I got down on
the floor and looked in a room from cat level I would usually go unnoticed by
the occupants. People don't expect human heads to come from that level, so they
I crouched down, as catlike as possible, and slithered to the edge of the door.
My head was level with the skirting board as I poked it, ever so slowly, into
the room. There, just inches from my face, was old Glanvilles head, his eyes
looking directly at me. His face was bright red and swollen, he was making
horrible grunting noises and his trousers were down around his ankles. Ethel was
lying underneath him. They were having it off!
As we looked at each other I don't know who was the most shocked. I leapt to my
feet and ran for all I was worth. I could hear his voice bellowing after me. "Ya
cheeky bloody bugger, come back here, I'll bloody well wallop you .......
I daren't go home. What with seeing that and not having got the cigarettes. I
couldn't go to Uriah because old Glanville might be out any minute ready to belt
me, he only had to get his trousers on, so I opted for the off-licence down the
road. I could get the cigarettes there and also gain time to think. I began to
feel doom-laden. Dad had clearly had a good reason for wanting me to avoid
Ethels. Now I was in for double trouble.
My stomach felt sick and heavy as I raced through the streets. Would old
Glanville have gone straight round to our house, or maybe Ethel? I didn't want
to think about the reception that might await me. All the while I kept shutting
my eyes tight and pinching myself, but it wasn't a dream. No such luck. I made a
silent resolution never to spy on people again if only someone would get me out
of this nasty situation. Not that I really expected any assistance, because I
knew I'd made and broken that promise at least a dozen times before.
In the off-licence I had an uneasy feeling that Higgs the owner knew my
guilty secret. He kept looking at me most peculiarly. When he handed over the
Woodbines and my change he said: "Time you was home and in bed young 'un, isn't
it?" Then he laughed wickedly like one of those jolly sailors at the seaside.
I started to walk home very slowly, imagining the sort of terrible things which
might be brewing up back at number 47. As I came to the bend I could hear the
sound of Glanville's cart coming down the road. It seemed to be coming very fast
and I had visions of a Dracula type encounter just round the corner. Like
lightening I nipped down the nearest gateway and dropped behind the hedge.
Through the gaps in the privet I watched the cart trundle by - not so fast
really - with father and son in animated conversation sitting on top. Well, that
was one problem out of the way, for tonight anyway.
When I got close to number 47 I crept down Gordon's path and into the back
garden. By climbing over the fences I would get round the back of Ethels
undetected. I could see from the light in her front room that someone was in
there. There was a gap in the curtains and once I got safely up to the window I
was able to peep in. Ethel was there, sitting with her feet up listening to the
radio, cup of tea in hand, fag drooping at the corner of her mouth. Back at the
scene of the crime I felt very nervous, but Ethel looked very relaxed. Maybe I
hadn't been recognised, or maybe Ethel thought that old Granville had been
imagining things! I felt a distinct easing of the tightness round the back of my
neck. Only our house to check now.
Mum had a thing about snoopy neighbours so she always made sure that there were
no gaps in our curtains. Consequently I had to press my head up next to the
kitchen window, which was frosted glass, making sure that I didn't cast a
shadow. I'd been caught like that before.
Everything was quiet. I could hear someone poking the fire, but no sound of
voices. I wondered if this was a good sign or not. In the past I had come into a
silent house after some misdemeanor or other only to be astounded by an
immediate vocal assault. However, I was getting cold so I'd have to take the
risk. Just at that moment a hand fell on my shoulder. I heard a strangled noise
coming from somewhere in my throat as I turned around. It was my dad. "Where the
bloody hell have you bin? It's half an hour since I sent you for the fags!"
Half an hour, was that all, it seemed like weeks! I could always tell when dad
was really made at me and this was clearly not one of those times. He was
concerned, but not angry. Bluffing would probably work, temporarily anyway.
"Uriah had run out of Woodbines so I went to Higgs. I met Eileen on the way and
stopped for a chat. Sorry." Others may call that telling lies but I preferred to
think of it as bluffing. "I were worried about you love, c'mon let's show our
faces to your mum before she calls the police. "He put his arm around me and I
felt weak with relief. It was just like waking up from a bad dream. Perhaps I
had imagined the whole thing and was going to wake up in bed any minute.
Mum was making some tea as we got in. She must have heard us talking outside the
"So there you are ... Ethel's bin round looking for you... " My whole body
stiffened involuntarily but it was too late now. I had no choice. I had to keep
on bluffing and hope for the best. "Oh, has she?" My voice came out too high and
squeaky. Dad looked at me most oddly.
"Yes. . she brought round this box of maltesers for you, your little secret or
something..." Both my parents were watching me intently but I pretended not to
"I'm very tired. I think I'll go to bed now," I said as I slipped out of the
Ethel and I never spoke about 'the incident' but six months later old Glanville
died. After that Uriah used to go in to 'have a cup of tea' with Ethel and he
always gave me a shilling to keep an eye on the cart.
Don't wake up
Vacant as air,
Words dribbling from your casual mouth
Like the slaver of the despairing.
Don't let me see you
Fettered in a chair,
Your grey head
Nodding like a flower
On a broken thread.
I would rather see you
Stagger over a cliff's edge,
And a wrinkled pension book,
Than watch you shrug
Life off in favour
Of a dragged-out death and yellowing
Beneath starched sheets
Like an old newspaper.
In the streets
Remind me of the doomed senile
Who shuffle in the wake of death.
Promise me you'll say adieu with style:
Collecting young men in Casablanca,
Wearing your wealthy widow's smile.
Maggie Barrand (Basingstoke)
That morning John and Michael were on the job well before starting time, but
already there was a knot of men there, talking and jesting with one another.
John and Michael joined the group, but did not join in the merrymaking. Suddenly
the talk stopped and all eyes focused on the figure that rolled towards them. It
was obvious he either commanded their deepest respect or instilled in them the
most terrible fear, for they all gaped at him open-mouthed.
Before he came closer than ten yards of the silent group he roared at the top of
his rough, hoarse voice: "Blow up, you bastards! Aye, and by Christ, unless some
of you change your style of work today, you'll change your place of work. Haa!
I'm telling you, there'll be strange faces around here before the end of the
Everyone except John and Michael scurried for the toolshed which the gangerman
had unlocked as he passed. Hurriedly they picked up what tools they needed and
vanished in all directions, watched by the malevolent eyes of the gangerman.
Michael drew his cards from his pocket and hesitantly went up to the gangerman,
"Here," and he offered the cards.
"Me cards," and already Michael had grown more bold.
"Oh." He put the cards in his inside pocket. "In that hut there you'll find a
pair of long boots. Put them on, 'cause I want you to dig out a manhole for me.
"Well, he's not used to this sort of work," John offered, "so, if you like, I'll
dig out the manhole and put him down on the tip in my place."
"Hi! you tell me how to do my work again, and you'll be looking for a fresh
place, I'm telling you. I'm the kiddy here and he and you and everyone else'll
do what I tell them or they'll be knocking on that green little window up there.
And if you don't get off to your work, you'll be knocking there in about two
minutes from now. Now, get off down there to your work, or get off up there to
John walked away hurriedly in the direction of the tip, while the gangerman
shouted after him: "Hi! You can go that way if you want. No one'll cry after
you, you know."
In the meantime, Michael had raced to the shed and was eagerly pulling on the
long boots. The gangerman watched him from under knotted eyebrows. "Can you not
get them on?" he cried.
"Yes, they're all right, sound."
"By Christ, it's taking you long enough. It must be an awful operation, hah?"
Michael didn't reply but hurried back to the gangerman.
"Come on," he cried, and Michael followed immediately. The gangerman wheeled
swiftly. "Where are you going?" he shouted.
"You said you wanted me to dig ... . "
"Without a pick, shovel or graff?"
"Oh," and Michael sped once more to the little toolshed.
"Hooh, may bad luck to the hen;" the gangerman snarled after him.
Michael knew all about a shovel, but he had never seen a grafting tool in his
life. He selected a shovel and pick, then picked up a queer-looking implement,
not unlike a long garden spade, flung them all on his shoulder and hoped to
heaven above that he had made the right selection.
"By Christ, that's taken some time," the gangerman greeted him when he came back
with beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. "If that's the best you can do,
you're no good to me. Come on."
With the tools on his shoulder, Michael followed the gangerman's rolling gait
until they came to a roughly dug hole almost full to the top with brown, scummy
"Down there," cried the gangerman, gesturing with his thumb, like Caesar
demanding the 'kill'.
Michael hesitated, for he felt sure the hole was very deep, and he tried to work
out how to dig in a place like that. The gangerman appeared to walk away, but
stopped suddenly and looking at Michael sideways demanded: "Well, are you
getting into it, or are you getting out of it, which?"
Michael looked at him with fear and consternation in his eyes.
"Jump in!" roared the gangerman, "Jump . . . !"
By this time, Michael had become so disordered that before the gangerman's shout
had died down, he jumped three feet in the air and landed in the middle of the
hole. The hole was only a foot or so deep, but the water splashed in all
directions, and the sudden landing jarred Michael's back. He stood winded for a
few seconds while the gangerman shifted his cap further back on his head, then
slouched away, chuckling to himself: "Hee, hee! That's the first one today I've
shivered the shit in, but it won't be the last. Ha, ha!" He turned again to
Michael. "Now, you better dig that out in big lumps and throw the bloody thing
well back, 'cause when I come back in an hour or so, I expect to see that
Michael didn't reply, for he was wet to the skin and shivering with excitement
and mental exhaustion. But on his own, he soon collected his thoughts, saw there
were pipes laid on either side of the proposed manhole, realized that the water
was congealed because muck had fallen into the manhole space and clogged the
pipes. Michael first unclogged the pipes, allowed the water to flow away, then
he set about the digging, slowly and methodically, and by the time the gangerman
returned he had dug a neat, square hole more than a foot below the pipes on
The gangerman looked into the hole when he returned. "Is that all you've done?
Where've you been. Ah, well, now, if that's the best you can do, you'd better
get out of it. Come on, out. Out! Up!"
Michael scrambled out of the hole, his legs like pieces of worn rope, for he was
sure he was being sacked.
"See, them wooden sections there," the gangerman said, pointing to some wooden
shuttering lying about thirty yards away.
"Well, after you've had a bit of snap, I want you to bring them here, set them
up and concrete this. That'll finish the job then. Know what I mean?"
Michael didn't reply.
"Hee, hee, I might as well do the bloody thing myself. Anyway, have a bit of
snap now and I'll show you how to go on afterwards. But I'm not going to do your
work for you. See, I don't dirty these, you know," and he flexed the fingers of
both hands. "You get paid for that, not me. When you came on the job, you asked
for work, didn't you?"
"Yes, oh yes," agreed Michael.
"Well, now you've got work, so you better do it, hah?"
"Yes, yes, sound."
"Right, well after snap I'll show you how to go on here, then it'll be up to
you. Anyway, have a bite of snap now. You might be better afterwards.
Michael followed him to an open shed that had been erected by the side of the
toolshed. There on a fire made from roughly cut logs a big drum of tea simmered.
The brew-boy was a man of about sixty, and he felt the lash of the gangerman's
whipping tongue same as everyone else.
"Now, teaboy, have you fried my chops? Hah?"
"No," replied the teaboy, "you didn't order any."
"I didn't order any! What do you mean, didn't order any?"
"You didn't tell me to get you any."
"Well, you know I have some every day, don't you?"
"Yea, but I asked you first thing this morning and you buggered off without
telling me. I can't buy chops if I don't get the money, mite."
"And what about me when I have no money?"
"Then there's no chops, mite."
"Ah, now, now . . . now that's no good at all, no good at all to me."
"Well, that's how it is, mite. I have only my wage at weekend, and that's spoken
for before I get it, it is."
"Well, you should put a bit to one side for times like this. See, I have no
money this morning, so what happens now?"
"What happens! I don't know, mite. Maybe you should put a bit to one side."
Ah, now. . . now. . . . you're no good to me at all, no good at all, you're
"Well, that's how it is, mite."
"Ah, well, this is no good." The gangerman sat down on a log and began drinking
tea from a brown, pint mug.
Other workmen, who had gathered round the fire and were drinking tea from cups,
milk tins and every type of container they could lay their hands on, remained
absolutely silent, listening to the altercation between the gangerman and the
brew-boy and wondering how it would work out. They hadn't long to wait. Soon the
gangerman lifted his head, stared relentlessly at the brew-boy and asked icily:
"Well? What are you going to do about it, then?"
"About what, mite?"
"About this - me having no breakfast, hah?"
"What am I going to do about it! Nothing, mite. That's your lookout."
"Ah, well, I'll do something about it," and he pulled from the inside pocket of
his jacket a crumpled, greasy notebook and a blackened pencil stump. He placed
the notebook on his knee and wrote: 'pay this man of J Brennan gangerman.
"Here, take this to that green window. Now away you go."
The brew-boy walked casually forward, took the note without flinching, read it
and remarked: "One'd expect a gangerman to be able to spell the word 'off." Then
he walked away with a calm dignity that infuriated the gangerman, who watched
with bloodshot eyes. He wanted to frighten that man, but had failed and in
actual fact had frightened himself because he had demonstrated to himself his
impotence to do what he wanted to do. Glumly he sat for a few more minutes
drinking, then suddenly he jumped to his feet and roared so fiercely that his
face turned a nasty blue: "Blow up you bastards! Either to work or to the green
window, whichever you want. One man has gone already and there'll be more before
the day's out."
As one man, every workman jumped to his feet and without a murmur rushed to his
workplace, while the gangerman sat down again and filled himself a fresh cup of
Michael jumped up with all the others and made off towards the manhole.
The gangerman shouted after him: "Hi, you!"
Michael stopped and turned around.
"I'll be down there in a few minutes to show you how to go on ... as soon as
I've finished this drop of tea. Come here and sit down a minute."
Michael did as he was instructed, but was careful not to stare at the huddled,
grotesque figure who was drinking tea from a brown mug with a noise like an
emptying sink. Eventually the gangerman rose to his feet, stretched and
bellowed: "Ah, God be with the time I was at it, hah! Come on, you don't want to
sit there all day, do you?"
Again Michael bounced with excitement, then followed at a respectable distance.
Michael didn't need much instructing on how to erect the shuttering. He could
see at a glance that it consisted of four sections which slotted into one
another perfectly and were held rigidly in position by interlacing iron bars and
holdfasts. When the shuttering was erected and the bars properly in place, it
was a very solid structure that would withstand any amount of knocking about.
The gangerman examined it when it had been erected and lifted on to four bricks
to allow a concrete bed at the bottom, underneath the shuttering.
He turned to Michael: "The concrete comes to four feet above the pipe invert,"
he said. "Do you know what the invert is?"
Michael shook his head.
"Jesus, you're an awful thick man, you are, thick. Now I'm telling you, you'll
have to shape yourself on this job, hah? It wants levelling and plumbing up.
Have you a level and a tape?"
Michael replied: "No."
"Jesus, you have nothing, nothing at all, you haven't. How do you expect to work
with no tools, hah? Here, you can have mine for today, and remember you concrete
to four feet above the invert. Sure you don't know what the invert is, do you?
Well, it's the bottom of the inside of the pipe, have you that?"
Michael nodded affirmatively.
"Right, four feet above where the water flows, think on," and he walked away,
leaving behind his tape measure and spirit level.
Michael worked conscientiously. He plumbed the shuttering, levelled it, sealed
all the spaces between the pipes and the shuttering to prevent any concrete
flowing into the pipes, mixed a considerable amount of concrete, shovelled
sufficient into the manhole sump to form a good bed, right up to the bottom of
the shuttering, tamped the concrete in the sump carefully, put the remainder
evenly around the sides up to the mark he had made on the shuttering, smoothed
it then with a flat piece of wood and made the job really neat.
Just before dinnertime the gangerman came along. Critically he examined the
completed job, then walked to the shed without passing a single comment.
Michael was delighted. He had passed his first test as a workman in England, so
at dinnertime he ate his sandwiches with an easy mind.
Six weeks John and Michael worked on the section of that job which was under the
control of the 'Mouth'. They travelled together to and from work daily, but
during shifts they never saw each other, for John emptied wagons to make a
viaduct at one end of the section, while Michael dug trenches, laid pipes and
made manholes at the other end. Often they talked about the job and their
gangerman, and whenever they did, either in the digs or in the pub, they never
failed to express amazement that such a poltroon as the person they called the
'mouth' could be so reprehensible and contemptible at all times to all people,
except, that is, the bosses of the contracting company. Yet, even though both
had been scorched by the burning lashes of the 'mouth's' rough tongue, neither
complained, Michael, perhaps, because he was too inexperienced to know who to
complain to, and John because he was too experienced to suspect there was anyone
to complain to.
By this time Christmas was but a few weeks away, the nights had drawn in, the
working day had been cut, and so, of course, had the money. Yet on that job, bad
as it was, there wasn't a man who didn't consider himself a lot luckier than the
hundreds of thousands of men all over the place who had no work at all, and who
had already settled for a very frugal Christmas indeed.
Then one evening Michael had a nasty shock John missed the train they usually
travelled on from Park Royal to Hammersmith. At first Michael wasn't too
worried. He thought his brother had just been delayed and would catch the next
train, so he hung on. But his brother did not catch the next train, or the next,
or the one after that, and then Michael became really worried. He thought about
going back to the job again, but realized it was too dark to do that.
He sat on a wooden, platform seat and tried to think the matter out, but the
longer he thought, the uglier his thoughts became, until he could stand them no
longer. Then he jumped up and with a frightened look on his face, began pacing
up and down the platform, barging into some people, missing others by mere
inches, debating with himself what to do, sometimes calmly and sometimes
hectically, sometimes quietly and sometimes hysterically, snapping his fingers
whenever a solution dawned on him, then swishing his arms about disconsolately
as some hidden snag suddenly appeared, and all the time his thoughts tumbled
over one another in wild confusion. He looked around to see if there was anyone
he could turn to for help, but all he could see was a mass of strained, stony
faces which screamed at him: "To hell with you and your brother! Haven't we
enough to do to look after ourselves?"
Then, just as if someone had switched on an electric light in his head, he could
see a way out he would catch the next train to Hammersmith and his brother
could catch a later one.
He was more satisfied after that and his face lost its haunted look. Yet, when
the next train halted at the station he hesitated. Several times he leaned
forward, rose on his toes as if to walk forward, then pulled himself up with a
jerk and all the time he stared wildly at the concrete steps, hoping and praying
to see his brother running down them to the platform, but that didn't happen.
Then the automatic doors began to hiss, and as soon as he heard that he plunged
forward recklessly, rammed one shoulder between the sliding door panels, and
with his feet scraping along the concrete platform as the train began to ease
forward, he struggled madly to get inside, which he eventually did, with the aid
of a passenger who was standing just inside the doors and saw the lad's
"Nearly left it too late, mite," remarked his helper, who was a cockney outdoor
worker, and who had grabbed a handstrap immediately he saw Michael was safely
inside the train.
"Too true, I did, too," agreed Michael, nodding his head and wiping sweat from
his forehead, although it was anything but a warm night. "Sure, he was too late,
too, for the other two," he continued. "Aye, and this one, too, came too soon.
Aha, sure, it's awful hard to judge one, too, hah?"
"Go, blimey!" expostulated the cockney. "More twos and ones there now than in a
guards division. I wonder he doesn't breed from 'em. Coo!" and he also wiped his
forehead with his free hand.
Over and over in his mind, Michael turned his problem as the train sped along.
He felt alone and lost and bewildered, but suddenly he remembered that he was
working, earning wages, saving a bit every week, and his troubles dissolved as
does the hardest snowdrift at the first pout of the spring linnet. He thought to
himself: "I'll be able to send the old fellow and the old lady a quid or so this
Christmas." Then he remembered his brother's warning:"
"Now, don't go doing anything daft, will you? How much a week are you saving?"
"Ten bob. Not bad, eh?"
"N.no, not bad, but sure you may want that yoursel' long before this year is
out, hah? Sure, they're not so bad over there, after all. They have a roof over
their head, the lie-down, and plenty of rough old grub, and now I'm telling you
there are millions of people in this country who haven't that. Ara, keep your
money, well, 'till after Christmas, anyhow."
"Til after Christmas! Sure, wasn't it for Christmas I was thinking of sending
them something. Sure, isn't that the time they'll expect it, hah?"
"Now, hold your horses there. There's a long time yet before the sun starts
shining, at least for the likes of us. Now, keep your money, yet a while anyhow,
'cause you know, somehow, when a man has a few quid in his pocket, he feels a
lot safer, hah?"
Michael put his hand round to the back pocket of his trousers, and felt the
three rolled pound notes lying snugly against his hip and straight away a warm
glow of contentment spread over him. He forgot about John, about the 'mouth',
about his father and mother and began to take notice of people and things all
around him. He became pleased with himself and with life and a slow smile of
satisfaction ran across his face and slackened the tautened flesh on his cheek
bones and around his mouth, the first time that had happened since he had
arrived in London.
When the train pulled into Hammersmith station, Michael's spirits were buoyant,
and he walked off that train and towards the station exit with that unmistakable
litheness of step that prudent youth so gracefully exhibits and indulgent
manhood disgracefully squanders. He started to whistle, but ceased immediately
he remembered the stern warning his brother had given him against all such forms
of behaviour. He walked along the street after that with his eyes focused on the
As he walked into the street where he lived, he noticed a lone figure standing
by a street lamp almost outside his digs. He couldn't make out who it was, but
something about the figure seemed to him to be familiar. He quickened his step
and as he drew a bit closer, he recognised the figure it was his brother John
and he was dressed in his best suit and wearing a collar and tie.
"Home early, aren't you, scan?" he called out.
John turned away angrily, for he couldn't bear to be shouted at in the street.
"Finished early?" Michael shouted again, even louder this time.
John didn't reply, but tried to bury himself in the shadow cast by the arm of
"Something wrong, scan?" Michael continued, but by this time was close enough
for his brother to turn on him with blazing eyes and contorted mouth.
"Well, for the sake of the old fellow's last shag, why don't you grow up, hah?
What the hell do you keep shouting for like that on the street, hah?"
"Jesus, what's up with you?"
"What's up with me! It's what's up with you. Why don't you give over shouting on
the street. Jesus, that's awful altogether."
"Ara, sure I wasn't shouting at all."
"You wasn't! Now that shout then came all the way from Killo-ween. I wonder how
it got here, hah?"
"And, Jese, I wonder, too. I wonder who told it the way."
"Hee, hee, I'm worse standing here arguing with you. But why don't you try and
be like everyone else here. You don't hear everyone round here shouting their
heads off in the streets, do you? Hah? I wonder why has the Paddy to be
"Well, damn me if I know. I dare say it's because ....."
"Ara, will you give over! And drop them stupid words too. 'Scan!! God above! And
'Jesus' every second word. You don't hear everyone round here saying stupid
words like that, do you?"
"Sure I've not heard everyone round here talking, hah?"
"Hah! That's nearly as bad. You'll have everyone laughing at you if you don't
mind out. Jesus .... aha, hell, it's awful."
"But what happened this evening, sea .... ah, John? You're home awful early."
"Ara I jacked out there."
"Shush, will you! Do you want everyone in the street to hear you? Hah?"
"No, but what did you jack for?"
"What! Aha, I had to. Sure, no one could work with an animal like that. Sure
he's an awful ass altogether. Now, it's there now anyhow, so that's it, I'm
finished out there."
"And what are you going to do now?"
"Well, that's what I've been waiting to tell you. I'm going to have a run into
Camden Town to see a couple of blokes who'll know what's going, so here's the
key. You'll have to let yourself in. You're dinner's in the oven and I'll see
you later up in the pub. Okay?"
"Yea, okay, but what are you going to do if you can't find work?"
"I'll see you up there later and we can talk about it all. I must hurry now
'cause I want to see these blokes before they go home. Right?"
"Right, sea.. . ah, John, sound."
John hurried off muttering sarcastically the word 'sound'.
It was with some trepidation that Michael opened the front door, because he did
not like the landlady, and he felt sure that she didn't like him. However, there
was nothing he could do about her feelings, or his own, for that matter, but he
tried to do as his brother had so often instructed. He opened and closed the
door carefully and as noiselessly as he could, took off his working boots, laid
them on a sheet of old newspaper that had been put on the floor in the hall for
that purpose, sneaked upstairs, washed himself and changed into his best
clothes, then came down to the kitchen where the landlady was waiting for him.
Michael started a little when he first saw her, but then her gaunt face crinkled
into something approximating to a smile and he thought he detected a glimmer of
welcome in her eyes.
"Good evening," she said when she saw him. "Ready for your dinner?" and her
voice sounded worn and weary.
"Yea, yea, yes, ready, yea. Thanks."
She turned towards the oven with a towel in her hand.
"I've kept it on .... I hope it's not burn .... I kept the gas I ..... No, I
think it's all right," and she placed a plate before him and removed the lid.
The pungent smell of cooked meat, boiled vegetables and baked potatoes so
activated the craving of Michael's body for a replenishment of all the energy
and muscle tissue he had used that day as a result of the gangerman's constant
goading and the heavy physical labour he had done, that he lost all his
self-control and attacked the hot meal with the voracity of a starved animal.
The landlady snatched her hands away just in time to avoid Michael's fork as it
dug into the food. She stepped back and looked horrified and disgusted at the
extent of his bad manners. But she soon overcame her initial repulsion, for her
many years of dealing with lodgers had taught her an easy tolerance of all such
"Your brother's gone out," she said in a thin, sickly voice.
"Yes, I know," Michael replied with his mouth full
"I met him outside. He gave me his key."
"Oh, yes, that's right, you haven't one of your own, have you? Oh, dear! And
I've intended to have one cut, but I've been putting it off. Now, with this . .
. Aha, I dunno! Oh, dear!" And she turned once more to the stove to brew tea.
"He's lost his job, you know."
"Yea, he told me. Jacked didn't he?"
"Yes. He has no work now, and it's awful hard to find work these days. Tis. That
must be an awful heathen of a man to make a lad give up his job so near
Christmas and all. He must. I wonder why God allows people like that to be where
they can do that. Ahaa! I dunno!"
"He's gone to Camden Town," Michael said. "He'll find work there all right."
"Eh, I hope so. If he doesn't, he'll have to leave."
"Leave!" Michael screamed so hysterically that the landlady dropped the lid of
the teapot on the floor, but luckily didn't break it.
"Ooh! It's all right, it's not broken. Yes, well, no young lad today can live on
the dole, you know. It's only fifteen shillings a week, and that's no good to
any young fellow. It's not."
"But amn't I working?" Michael reminded her. "Won't I give him money if he wants
"Yes, I dare say you will," she said as she left two cups and saucers on the
table, one near Michael's plate and the other at the opposite end of the table.
"It's a grand thing to see brothers willing to help one another these days. You
don't see that very often now, you don't. But I suppose everyone has enough to
do to look after himself these days. Ahaaa, I donno what the world's coming to
at all. I don't."
She poured out two cups of tea, one for Michael and the other for herself.
Wearily she sat on a chair at the opposite end of the table, leaned her head
forward and squeezed her eyes as if she wanted to gouge out the sickening pain
in her head. She had a couple of sips of tea and then she said, without lifting
her head and in a voice that had less vibrance than a slack drum: "You won't be
going out tonight, then, now as you're on your own."
"Yes, I am," Michael affirmed as he pushed his empty plate away and drew a hefty
slug of tea. "I have to see sea. . .a, John later on in the pub. Yes."
"Oh. Oh, that's all right, then. I was just going to say that you can stop down
here tonight if you like. I'll leave the light on."
"Oh, thanks, but no, ta, I'm going out."
"Oh. Sure, I'd leave the light on every night, if I could afford it. I hate to
see young lads being made go to a pub every night, but no one can afford to keep
lights burning at night these times. No one. We only just manage to scrape along
as we are. My husband hasn't worked now for months and months. There's no work
for him, there isn't. It's terrible, it is."
Michael nodded agreement.
"I do hope that boy gets a job soon. He's such a nice mannerly boy, too." She
picked up her half-empty cup and walked towards the kitchen door. "I'm going
into the sitting room now, but I'll leave the light on, so you can stay down
here if you want, tonight."
"Ah, no, no, no thanks. I'm going out straight away, I am. Thanks."
"Oh, allright, then. I'll put it out when you've gone. Goodnight!"
"A go.good. . . ."
The frail-looking woman slammed the door shut and left Michael with a
half-formed word hanging from his mouth.
"Jesus, she's not all that bad, neither," he said to himself.
"Jesus, she's ugly though. She has a face now like a quenched lantern. Eh, but
I'll have to be off soon tonight."
That night, he was ready to go out sooner than ever, despite the fact that he
was late home, for although he had been in London less than two months
altogether, his attitude to some things had changed considerably. No longer had
he his original antipathy to going to the pub at night. In fact, he recognised
that the pub was the only place he could remain comfortable. Besides, it was a
social centre where he, his brother and their acquaintances could meet, talk
freely and exchange information about work, wages, lodgings and other matters of
mutual interest to all of them. And even though he was still unable to stand his
corner at drinking, he was no longer stomached with one pint. Always he had two
pints of a night, and on one or two occasions had actually sunk three, but the
most ominous thing of all was that he was developing a liking for the stuff.
Gradually he was settling into a form of life that accorded with his brother's
advice he was forgetting all the tales he had been told about England and
disavowing all that he had brought himself to believe.
True to his promise, John arrived at the pub well before closing time, and
Michael was so delighted to see him that he plunged from his seat and rushed
towards the bar to buy his brother a pint. While crossing the floor in such a
hurry, he overturned a stool and in his excitement became so hopelessly
entangled in its legs that he hopped skipped and stumbled all over the place.
With quiet amusement, John watched his brother's frantic efforts to extricate
himself from the clutches of the stool's legs, and warned facetiously: "Woo,
now! Careful now, boy! Careful, that's it. You could do yourself a terrible
injury like that two terrible injuries, in fact."
Sporting a crimson blush of embarrassment, Michael eventually freed himself,
rushed to the bar and asked his brother: "What's yours, sea. .. ah, a pint of
Main Line, isn't it?"
Still smiling demurely, John nodded.
"A pint of Main Line, please," Michael ordered, but the barman had the order on
the bar in anticipation, and nodded towards Michael and then the pint.
"Oh, ta, thanks." He paid for the pint, handed the glass to his brother and
asked eagerly: "How did you go on, out there? Hah?"
John drank from his glass, hunched his shoulders. "Umm! so, so. Let's sit down."
They walked to the table on which stood Michael's partly filled glass.
"Jesus, tell us how you went on?" pleaded Michael.
"All right, all right, give's a chance to sit down first."
"Yea, yea, course, but how did you go on? Did you find work? Did you meet those
blokes? What had they to say? Did they know anything? Hah?
"Hah? Have you said something?"
"Hi! don't start that, taking the piss. Tell's how you went on."
"Well, I went on the train first, then I went on a bus ..."
"Ah for..... sake! No, tell's
did you find a job?"
"All right, all right, calm down. You're always in a hurry. Drink your pint."
Michael emptied his glass and went to the bar for two more, this time carefully
avoiding all stools.
A few old-timers sitting at the domino table laughed and nodded towards John,
who smiled back in acknowledgement.
So carefully did Michael carry the full glasses across the floor that he never
spilled a drop. "How did it go?" he asked his brother who was already seated,
then carelessly plonked one glass down on the table so hard that the beer
splashed out, over the table and down the front of John's best suit.
"Hold on, hold on," cried his brother as he quickly pushed himself away from the
table and spread his legs to allow the beer to drip from his shirt on to the
floor. "How, did you say? Where more like. God above, I'm soaked .... more so
than a poor millionaire. Why can't you be a bit careful. I bet my buckle turns
brown with this lot. God above!"
"Sorry, scan, I . . I . . I," Michael blurted. "I was just asking how. . did
After shaking most of the beer from his clothes, John drew his chair up to the
table again, lifted the glass from which the beer had splashed, examined it
critically and said: "I suppose you'll want a full one for this, hah?"
Michael stood a few moments with a vapid look on his face, then flopped into a
chair guiltily. "Jesus, I'm sorry. I just wanted to know how you went on. How
"How did I what?" John retorted bad-temperedly.
"How did you go out there?"
"How? Well first I went on a train, then on a bus, then I walked a small bit.
Anything else you'd like to know?"
"Aw, hell! Sure all I want to know is what happened. But you won't say what
happened, will you?"
"Yes, I will. 'What happened'. How's that?"
"Aawaa! Tell's kid."
"Will you give over kidding. I told you before about them stupid words you keep
saying. Give over! You'll make a show of yourself."
Michael sat sullenly for a few moments, but his curiosity got the better of him
and he tried again. "But, John, for heaven's sake tell us how you went on out
.... ah ... there where you went to, hah?"
John drank from his glass, then spread his hands and with an
exaggerated casualness replied: "Well, there's nothing to tell, really."
"But did you find work out there?"
"Sure, I didn't go for work. I told you, I went out there to see a few blokes
who'd know if there was anything going around here, and they told me there
isn't, so...." Again he spread his arms definitively.
"So what?" Michael asked eagerly.
"So ...... that's it. There is nothing."
"Jesus, you were foolish to jack 'til after Christmas anyhow."
"Foolish! Sure a man has no choice. Sure, when that 'shout' thinks it's a man's
turn to go, that man may as well pick up his jacket and walk away."
"A man's turn," Michael repeated, because for some inexplicable reason that word
sent a shaft of foreboding across his vision.
"Aye," continued his brother, by this time having regained his composure and
shed his ill-temper, "walk away. Before he decides that, if possible."
"But what are you going to do if there's no work?"
"Same as I did out there - walk away," John replied defiantly. "That's not the
only job in the world, and this isn't the only place."
Once more Michael felt that emptiness in the pit of his stomach and his beer
tasted sour. He swallowed a couple of times before he spoke again because his
throat felt dry and tacky. "But you'll have to leave the digs, won't you?" he
asked at last.
John drank again, and again adopted an excessive casualness. "Yea, well,
there're plenty digs, if a man can afford them."
"Are you going to go somewhere?" Michael asked in desperation.
John stretched and groaned before he answered. "Yes, first thing in the morning,
I'll be hitting that road harder than a drayhorse, all the way to Ebbw Vale."
"South Wales!" screamed Michael.
This time John didn't rebuke him for his outburst. Instead he looked into the
lad's troubled eyes and saw there loneliness and fear, the same feeling he
himself had experienced when he was Michael's age, and when he had no one to
turn to for help. He leaned forward and spoke earnestly and consolingly. "Naw,
not the place you're thinking about. That's in Australia. This South Wales is
here, well near here, only about a hundred miles away."
"A hundred miles," Michael reiterated as wearily as if he had walked every inch
of that distance.
"Well, that's not far," his brother assured him.
"You'll have to go on a train."
"Naw," remarked John easily, "walk it. Maybe hitch a lift, if I'm lucky."
After this exchange, Michael sat some time in silence, watched by a
dispassionate brother, who knew the thoughts and fears that flooded the lad's
brain. He was about to try and assure him that he wasn't really alone, but then
he thought: "But he is, really, and there's nothing anyone can do about that.
And the sooner he realizes that, the better for himself. "Ah, cheer up," he
said, encouragingly, placing a hand on Michael's slumped shoulders and rocking
the lad gently to and fro. "It may be all for the good. If you have to leave out
there soon, you'll be able to come to me again. You'll be all right."
"Yea," Michael half-heartedly responded.
"Empty your glass and we'll have one more pint, 'cause I must be on that road in
the morning before the drayhorses. Empty it."
"No, honestly I don't think I want any more tonight."
"Come on, empty it, have another. It'll do you good."
"Aye, okay then." Michael emptied his glass and handed it to his brother.
While his brother was at the bar, Michael sat brooding. Being a retiring sort of
lad, he had made few friends, none in London, for the only people he had become
acquainted with in London were people who knew his brother, John, and who had
become known to him through John.
"Oh, I wish I could find out where my other two brothers are," he wailed to
himself somewhat pathetically. "I'm sure .... but what am I talking about? Sure
they may be as badly off as the quare fella. I bet they are, and I bet that's
the reason the quare fella there never talks about them, hah? I bet it is. Now,
the long and the short of it is, I'm on my own, and I'll have to make the best
of it. And I will, too. Sure all the others had to do it, and sure I'm as good a
man as any of them. I am." Again he felt the rolled up notes in his back pocket
and again they had a hypnotic effect on him. He raised his head and smiled
deeply, and then and there he decided that he would never again become dependent
on anyone. "Now, from now on I'll stand up on my own two legs, like a right
man," he solemnly vowed, straightening up, wiping away his melancholy like a
cafe waitress wipes the crumbs off a table, loosened his arms and let his hands
dangle freely by his sides, thrust out his chin and looked around defiantly.
"Aye, and when the 'shout' out there thinks it's my turn, I'll walk away, too. I
will that, maybe quicker than most."
When John returned with the beer he was surprised to see Michael apparently
happy and smiling. Only a few minutes earlier he had left him cowering on his
chair, timid, almost whimpering, but when he came back the same lad was sitting
bolt upright, confident, almost conceited and ready to enjoy himself.
No sooner had John placed the glasses on the table than Michael grabbed one,
drank deeply, replaced the glass, groaned loudly and throatily and said
confidentially to his brother: "Tell you what: they keep a good drop of beer in
here, hah?" He twirled the glass round on the table. "Great stuff, hah?"
In view of the fact that three or four minutes earlier, Michael had to be
persuaded to have another pint, those remarks by him took John so much by
surprise that he could only mutter incoherently: "Oh, yea, yea, hah? Hah?" He
watched his brother closely for the next few minutes and noticed that a
fundamental change had occurred in him. The change was so extensive that it
astonished John, but it also pleased him, for he knew then that Michael would
make out all right.
During the remainder of the night they drank and talked amiably and never once
mentioned work or anything associated with it. Both found, to their mutual
surprise, that there were other, far more interesting things to talk about.
Besides, both felt relieved to put work at the back of their minds for a few
hours, at least.
The following morning, Michael was first out of bed, itself very unusual. He
came down stairs, made both breakfasts, talked casually and unpretentiously to
John when he came down, then just before he went out to work, he shook hands
with John, wished him the best of luck, and from that morning forward he never
saw or thought of, or worried about any of his brothers. It seemed as if, in
those final moments, he was glad to put that period behind him, and that's
exactly what he did.
He also forgot about sending money to his father, and old John McWanted sat by
the fire, more morose and bad-tempered than ever, sucked more vigorously on his
pipe, snarled more cur-like at his wife and cursed the day he ever had a son,
every one of whom had disgraced him by their drunken behaviour beyond in England
and by their selfishness and thoughtlessness for everyone except themselves, for
not one of them cared whether his father or mother lived or died. "Bastards!" he
muttered vengefully to himself, then looked again venomously at his silent,
in the corner.
Not really news,
but it fills in space.
News at Ten.
RIPPER STRIKES AGAIN
WOMAN BRUTALLY MURDERED
and SEXUALLY ASSAULTED!
Only dead women
make the headlines.
(Lee Centre, S.E. London)
The Aunties' House
One approached the Aunties' house along a road of lifeless terraced houses. No
sun ever shone on the street, and in consequence the rooms were always cold and
grey. The Aunts, not related and never referred to in the singular, were four
ageing sisters who kept their front rooms 'for best', but never in fact used
them. They smelt musty and old and were full of ornaments, pictures, and large
ugly furniture, which in turn held stacks of boxes and tins that left us mad
with curiosity. The four spinsters were like jackdaws and never refused so much
as a button that came their way. If something wasn't needed, then it was packed
away, and ultimately it all piled up like an Aladdin's cave.
Upstairs was no different. Large, gloomy, moth-bally rooms. Heavy dark beds with
bolsters, dressing tables with embroidered mats and glass trinket jars, and the
inevitable set of hairbrush and mirror. The bathroom was modern by comparison,
but had a most peculiar smell about it. A mixture of soap, toilet cleaner and
medicines the resulting odour being clean but not fresh; an old ladies' smell,
but without a trace of feminity.
We would be ushered past the 'best rooms' and down the dim passage leading to
the back of the house. Cabbage and a dank smell from the cellar would fill our
nostrils but thankfully, the connecting door would creak open on to a different
world. The door had a stained glass window in it and it heralded what was to
Here was the sunny, warm heart of the house. Furniture still old but lived in,
colourful plates lining the dressers, plants and budgies everywhere, and an
overindulged dog thundering around in welcome. The room throbbed with life.
This haven was the Aunties' house, not the austere front of it, nor the dismal
bedrooms aloft. This was the room rekindled in memories along with our affection
for these dear 'pretend' Aunties of our childhood.
(Lee Centre, S.E. London)
The Song of the Wheel
When earth was young and oven-fresh
It whirled in harmony
And mighty mountains marched above
The brewing-bowl of sea;
Then life was sparked; and buds burst forth,
Beasts swam and soared and ran;
And nifty, bright and youngest yet
Came elder brother, man.
Sparked fire, split seed and roasted grain.
Gut caves against the cold;
Watched crawlies crawl, and gave them names.
Watched way that rivers rolled;
Then turned his hands to smite, to break
The back of tree and soil,
Set fire to lick up life, lay waste;
And labour turned to toil.
They are building a city and tower to reach the sky;
It is noon, and all the slave turns in his mind
Are the sun, and the foreman's lash, and that sleep is kind;
He gasps and hauls, and the salt sweat stings his eye.
And the mason is hewing a king's great deeds into stone;
The goldsmith is fashioning gold for a rich man's tomb;
The weaver's hands speed deftly on the loom;
She is weaving a cloth that is fine, and will never be her
It is her first day at work;
The dragon chained in the boiler-room is making a terrible
He is running a race with the conveyor belt
Which he can never lose or win.
The parts come at him like a boxer's blows;
With his hands he wards off each punch to the nose;
His left, then his right; or is it the other way round?
His head spins; he sees parts in the air, the ceiling, the
He dreams he is taking a swim
In a gigantic glass of beer
But he must keep his mind on his work
Or he'll be out on his ear.
Bound on wheel,
Each limb chained to
Rim of steel.
Wheel ablaze is
Chained man writhes but
Makes no sound;
They fuse in fire;
From leaping flames
Sparks of white
Dance of light.
Outside the birds are singing;
The machines are singing too.
A sparrow watches with wonder
What the workers' hands can do.
Close-knit in the bond of freedom
They create with brain and hand.
In the furnace they forge the future,
Who are masters now of the land.
Seen at Divis
Takes a swig
Six year old
Torn jersey - dirty jeans -
Grubby face of six year old,
Drains the bottle,
Holds it Throws
Of showing hate
Marrow of bone
Six years too late
Release is found
In bottle stone
Six year old so enmeshed
In the Kesh)
Crash of glass
Smashed on Pig
Another swig !
Dusk had set in when the game began.
Behind houses moonlight glowed in broken glass
Set in the walls round the backs of factories.
A cat screeched, leapt off over gardens.
Gutters full of kids in rags
Hiding from bedtime, letting dreams begin.
Moonlight on gravel & green scraggy weeds,
A train on the bridge doing a ton
Off into the night. In a backstreet pub
They used to serve us beer & cider;
Heady with night & blood & alcohol
We set off roaming Coventry's alleys.
And we ran through gardens swopping gnomes round,
Threw bricks at humming streetlights,
Crossed the tangled lines of the railway-yard
Under a bridge past red iron railings.
Up a black fire-escape to a warehouse roof
And down by a truck left in a yard,
Made its cab roof dent & ring.
Climbed a great spiked gate, left the guard-dog screaming.
Once we walked miles on the railway-line
High up on viaducts, blasted by the wind,
With the streets far below & the city's lights
Thrown out over the hills like constellations.
The city's night was our toy, our battle,
It always began in that smoky bar,
Then wound off round those narrow alleys.
The city's bloodstream, the back of our hands.
One alley stopped at a black brick wall:
we pulled each other up, a twenty-strong gang.
And swayed along, a nightmare tightrope-act,
A Chinese monster between the gardens.
My foot smashed through a greenhouse roof.
Dogs Jumped up from their dreams growling murder.
Bedroom lights came on like sirens,
Scared neighbours bellowed or just gazed.
But they couldn't see. You don't care
For their sleep & their wives & their alarm-clock dawns
When the world is a mouth with big teeth that beckon
And the heavens are littered with stars.
In the morning buses left for school,
Our eyes blurred, fog round the spires;
And people's gardens were taken over
By each others' gnomes, looking guilty & strange.
(Basement Writers, London El.)
The Milk Run
"Wouldn't you like to try .... ?" the nurse's voice was thick with coaxing, her
eyes offering support, but Janie shook her head and looked away from the
instantaneous change in the girl's face. Now she had turned to the trolley and,
in a single movement, held bottle, napkin and hot water jug towards Janie, no
longer looking at her.
"I have to work ..." Janie ventured by way of excuse.
The nurse shrugged and pinned her smile on the occupant of the next bed where a
woman with enormous blue-veined breasts was grinning at the jawing infant
suckling there. The child's face was covered by the bloated pear of the breast
he was joined to and meek gasps punctuated his efforts. The woman laughed.
"Hungry little bugger, ain't he?" she said to the ward at large, and then
settled into the pillow with the cocoon of her child arched over her horizontal
body. Janie stared at her and envied her the absent-minded confidence she
radiated. Janie held the bottle clumsily having nowhere to set it down while she
arranged her own infant in her crook, and looked after the nurse's back
longingly. The nurse was at the side of another bed, speaking in that calm croon
to the girl there. The girl was nodding her head cautiously and Janie saw the
nurse set down a bottle with a triumphant smile and begin to undo the straps of
the girl's gown, baring the small breast which pimpled immediately in the cool
air of the ward. The nurse lifted an infant and pushed its face into the
protruding nipple, wedging her finger between its shut mouth and opening the
lips over the nipple expertly. Janie saw the child tighten, make fish breaths
and begin to howl. The girl drew back, nervous, and the nurse tutted and pushed
her forward again.
"You must persevere. It has to be learnt, you know," she said briskly and sat on
the bed to watch. The girl tried again, this time arranging the child's mouth
herself but the child did not suck and the girl looked a question at the nurse.
"Try expressing a little milk," she offered. The girl squeezed her breast until
some milky droplets pearled her nipple, then smeared the drops onto the child's
lips. The child shuddered and howled the more at the tease and the girl shook
her head. The nurse came to her side and manipulated the pair again, this time
squeezing the breasts into the mouth and pressing rhythmically until the milk
was spurting into the tiny aperture. The child gasped and swallowed, wailed and
swallowed, wailed and swallowed for ten minutes while the nurse pressed its meal
into it and the girl lay back tense and near tears.
"Now the other one," the nurse said, holding the child at her shoulder while the
girl exchanged breasts slowly, pleading in her eyes. The process was repeated,
the nurse acting as mechanic between two ill-matched parts. All the time she
crooned at the girl, saying small comforting things as she pumped, calling the
baby's name, praising the meal he was getting, saying the girl was good, good.
At the end she put the child back into its cradle and handed the girl a pad.
"Next time, he'll have the idea, I shouldn't wonder. Now you must keep those
breasts perfectly clean. No drink, no high flavoured food. Plenty of liquids,
milk as much as you can. Well done, mother, it's the best start he could have."
The girl looked miserable as she dressed herself and the nurse moved off
straight away, brisk with duty to be done. Suddenly the girl burst into tears
and sat there sobbing into her hands. The fat woman next to Janie noticed and
called across to her.
"Never mind, love, you'll get the hang of it. Four of them, I've had, and fed
them all. Have a good blow and cheer up! What's your kiddie's name? Your first,
Her large warmth reached the girl who pulled herself together with a trembling
effort. She sniffed, did things with paper hankies and called back with a
"Sorry, I don't know what came over me. It is my first and his name is Jeremy
Arthur. He was 8 Ibs. 8 ozs."
Her child back in its cradle, the fat woman hauled herself out of the bed and
slappered in her backless slippers across to the girl, drawing her wine silk
dressing gown around her tyre-like body, leaving a deep bowl in the covers where
she had lain. She sat heavily on the girl's bed and flinched as she did so,
muttering, "Bloody stitches!" as she did so. They were soon talking quietly
together, well met since the fat woman was all mother and the girl much a child
still. Janie watched them talk and would have liked to join them but knew her
presence would have unbalanced the conversation. She was in more of a mess than
the girl was.
Her breasts were hurting her. She had woken up in pain that morning, feeling her
breasts like dull weights on her body, hard as bone with the undrunk milk
swelling their every cell. When she laid a finger on them they flared into hot
pin-cushions, passing little shards of pain from one pin-point to the next until
she nearly screamed with the agony of it as the whole breast throbbed and
pricked on. So she had tried to lie still with her arms held away from the sides
of them, folding the covers down over her belly so that no weight rested on
them. When her breakfast arrived she could not face the ordeal of sitting up to
eat it and had suffered instead the stiff face of Sister lecturing her about
"keeping her strength up" and entreating her impatiently to "eat lest she have a
blockage". But she could not and since she knew she must go through this pain,
she did not explain but listened in alarm as Sister warned an enema at her.
Janie had to raise herself to feed the child and this she had accomplished in a
terrible quarterhour, an inch at a time, one side then the other, using her arms
to lever herself up. Every time she jerked upwards both breasts burned and
pulsed and she had succeeded drenched with sweat and tears. She had had to feed
the child at a distance, holding her away from the comfort of her breast in a
cool embrace of her forearm. A box of tissues began to slide off the bed and
Janie reached automatically to save them. The explosion in her breasts drew a
howl from her that turned every head in the ward towards her, and she could bear
it no longer but let herself sob without control until a young nurse came
running in alarm to her side.
"Please help me, please help me," she cried into the teenager's chest as the
girl laid her down. The girl's eyes were wide with concern.
"Sh, don't cry. What's the matter?" her hand was reaching for the bell above
Janie's bed. The bell would bring a doctor.
"It's my breasts," Janie cried.
The nurse halted in mid-poke. She touched Janie's left breast gently but it was
enough to send the hot needles spinning.
"Poor thing," the girl soothed," you should have said. I'll bind them for you.
We can't give tablets any more. They had oestrogen in them and you can get blood
clots. Shh. I'll get some cloths for you." She moved off fast and Janie lay back
with the tears running into her ears as she waited, calmer now that something
was happening. The fat woman's face appeared above her.
"Breasts?" she asked knowingly "Murder, isn't it? Never mind, love, they'll
truss you up like a turkey. Never had it myself but I've seen some horrible
breasts, like lumps of cement. First one, is it? Enough to put you off, isn't
it?" she chattered on and Janie let the words roll over her, grateful for the
reassurance the fat woman s expertise allowed her. The nurse came back with a
trolley and another nurse. They screened her bed leaving the fat woman inside
with her and between the three of them they raised Janie into a sitting position
without too much pain. The nurses began to wind long white cloths around Janie,
starting at the shoulder and working gently further down onto the breasts until
their tender mounds were tightly held in a firm embrace. All the while the fat
woman chucked and nattered into her ear, taking her mind off the thumping of her
breasts. Janie began to feel less weepy and to listen to the woman as she spoke.
In a lull in the monologue she asked a question.
"Why is it so awful? Stitches and sore breasts, feeding and blood all over the
place. Don't you mind?"
The fat woman laughed at her and put a large arm around her.
"Listen, pet. I kick myself silly every time I get pregnant. But you don't think
of all this at the time," she winked at Janie, "this time I was wild. Last thing
I wanted was another kid. I've got blood pressure, you see. For about a month I
lay in bed cursing me old man, not that he knew, but blaming him all the same.
But you learn, you know, there ain't nothing you can do about it. You just have
to put up with it all, jags and being sick, and after you leave here, the good
things roll in. Taking it out for walks. Family admiring it, You'll see and I'll
tell you something else, you'll be back here soon enough too!"
Janie smiled at the fat woman who was laughing again, her fleshy cheeks holding
the high smile up, her eyes already moving across to the other girl's bed in
case she should be needed there again. But the girl was sleeping.
"Thanks for talking to me. I was feeling lonely," said Janie. The fat woman
turned back to her, her face suddenly serious.
"So are we all in here. One mum, one baby, and you can't talk to him. All of us
alone and half of us scared. Supposed to be radiant and happy as a lark when
you're tired and twitchy really. We all put on face, keep it up, I bet there
isn't a woman here who tells her husband the truth. Oh well, I don't suppose it
would help if we did. They like it, us smiling and mooning over the kids, what's
the point of spoiling their fun? "she spoke thoughtfully and a great deal slower
with the weight of her thoughts. Janie's face had brightened though.
"Do you mean it's not just me?" her voice was high with relief, "You mean, you
don't feel as careless as you sound?"
"Christ, no! I've had four and you'd think I'd know something by now but as soon
as I get him home, out of here and no-one to run to, I II mess it up sometimes.
Forget to wind him, give him something daft to eat, leave him outside a shop and
forget him. No-one's a born mother, pet. You have to learn it all."
Janie nodded, accepting this new knowledge with a silent affirmation. The fat
woman moved off back to her own bed where she lay in silence staring at the
ceiling. Janie lay back to think too.
That evening, when the fat woman's husband shuffled up the aisle towards her
bed, Janie had time to see her friend set her face fair and greet the man with a
beautiful smile and a hand pointing proudly towards the sleeping child. The man
patted his wife's knee affectionately and peered into the cradle. "Smashing!" he
announced, handing his wife a bulging paper bag from which purple grapes
spilled. "Looks like you," she heard her friend say to her husband just as her
own husband arrived, his first visit. Janie sat up and forced light into her
eyes, extended her arms and hugged him to her bound breasts bravely. "Hello,
darling," she said. "See the baby! Isn't she beautiful! She looks just like
you." And I feel so well and pleased with myself. How are you?"
(Castle Douglas, Scotland).
Whit'll Ye Dae?
Whit'll ye dae when yer man's redundant
an' ye canny live oan unemployment,
when ye canny manage oan the pittance
an' fa' behind wi' tick commitments;
Whit'll ye dae when the bailiffs come,
when they land in wi' the final warnin'
an' poind yer goods fer warrant auction,
when they pit a notice a notice in yer windae
invitin'bids fae a'an'sundry;
When they take yer furniture intae a van
an' gie yer kids tae welfare man,
throw whit's left intae the gairden
an' bar yer door wi' an iron railin',
Missus, Whit'll ye dae?
(Based on "The Coming of the Wee Malkies" by Stephen
of the Hull fishing industry
Miriam beheaded cod,
Claimed engagement to a man
trawler-bound off Iceland,
but she would forget
fora while if
I would understand.
Her knife disembowelling
head to tail,
turning innards, bloodless, pale,
their stink remaining.
We met at a dance,
she laughed easily and
did most of the talking.
I bought her drinks and
drove her home in a
battered white Transit van
past the dock-fronts,
cranes black against blackness,
and terraced houses in
reticulated rows street-lamp paced
imagining those delicate fingers
dextrously tossing corpses
into ice, gleaming dead
fish eyes coming adrift.
We made vague plans but
I was a little too drunk
and she had me park
a street away to allay
but every time the wind
came in from the south
redollent of fish
I caught Miriam laughing,
beaded with cod-eyes and scales.
And now the trawlers rust
and the docks silt
and I still see
Andrew Darlington (Ossett, Yorkshire)
poem to mark the Town Hall's centenary
These corridors are haunted,
Have always been haunted,
By the ghosts of the living.
They sit behind their counters,
Eyes hard as traffic lights.
Minds like lead,
Hearts tight shut;
Their spirits walk, half free,
Up and down.
Up and down,
These gloomy corridors.
These corridors are tiled
Like vast green urinals;
The tiles were chosen by the town clerk
Now dead and buried
In his off ice,
And were freely admired
By a hundred years of mayors
Who now decorate
Various local graveyards.
These corridors are scented.
In spite of daily cleaning
With the sweet smell of smart money,
And the sour smell
Of poverty and ignorance.
We have walked these corridors
A hundred years now
And got nowhere.
Surely it is time to open the windows,
And let in
The air and the sun.
Each autumn, at St Andrews, the captain
Of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club
Drives off down the first fairway,
Where the local caddies wait, impatient,
To be first to retrieve his ball,
To receive the gift of a gold sovereign.
It is (like so much else) a tradition.
I have a photograph of the event
Taken during the hungry thirties.
In the photograph is a little man
In a big flat cap, threadbare jacket,
Baggy trousers and turned-up boots.
From somewhere he has found a tie
To knot around his scrawny neck.
And he smiles he smiles.
Eager yet tentative,
The dog that has retrieved the ball
For his master, who stands planted
Confidently on plus-foured pins,
Massive and smooth as a walrus.
I cannot look at this photograph
Without anger, without shame:
The degradation of the little man,
(Somebody's husband, somebody's father)
Pinched face under the absurd cap,
Is too manifest to bear.
He transcends his element
And preaches revolution.
And if you say that nowadays
Things are so very different,
That the caddy would be better-dressed,
Quite the confident sport perhaps,
I will reply that clothes never
Did make the man, then or now.
Geddes Thomson (Glasgow)
Death of a Dynasty
Sweat, the bitter reek of hot metal,
With ash in the black tea.
And a full wage packet,
Sparks to enf lame the eye,
Heat shimmering work-shop,
Pulping the brain.
Flare and glare are unbiased twins.
Born with the scream of massive rollers,
The shriek of straining crane.
Pulsing, silver metal.
A whitened dazzle
To pour A fury
Of spitting, cracking
Blue sparks of hatred.
Reaching molten fingers
Through channels of flame
To reach oblivion.
With metal a bitter taste
The steel Lords
Grind slowly to a halt.
The furnaces coo I.
The pulse flickers.
16 Pence Per
Person Per Trip
In a little known metro called Bury
What's noted for fresh air and fun
Lived a luvly young couple called Merry
In an 'ouse with their 'andicapped son.
The son bore is 'andicap bravely
As did 'is mother, poor lass,
Till the great G.M.T. undertaking
Decided to take the lad's pass.
The big white chiefs there in their wisdom
Said there'd been too much blinking abuse,
And why should the lad travel free on't bus
To give 'is ma money for booze?
As it 'appened 'is ma were teetotal,
So such a thing shunt a' bin said,
But that didnt make any difference,
Not once the great lie had been spread.
So the lad couldnt leave 'is own village
And sadder and sadder 'e grew.
'Is mother, she went to council
And 'er member of parliament too.
Her M.P. was most sympathetic,
And explained about the I.M.F.
But when she said can 'e have 'is pass back
'E suddenly went very deaf.
This 'ere is a matter for council.
But' e might get 'is pass back next year
If we sort out the balance of payments
But it's highly unlikley, I fear.
And wot do we do in the meantime?
Said the mother with quivering lip.
He'll just 'ave to pay like the others
16 pence per person per trip.
Women's poetry is beginning to bloom, but it seems in triumphant separation from
HOME TRUTHS is an anthology of poems and prose by twelve women, and edited by
Wendy Whitfield. It is the result of a years work by a group of women which
broke away from the 'male dominated' Commonword in Manchester.
The collection varies in subject, from a quiet account of friendship through the
years, and another coping with the death of an old neighbour, to fairytale
fables, and a tale of peasants and lords in an unnamed land. There are musky,
velvet poems by Karen Sullivan which need twice reading, and down-to-earth poems
by Joan Batchelor; her winner is 'Queen of Colliers Row', a poem about a
massive, cheerful woman, who copes with life in a 'Mucky pot-holed ash road',
kids following in her mountainous wake. And Brenda Leather's Tara Mam' is a
lovely scatty poem told through a child's eyes.
Several poems explore love; or our-of-love relationships with men, trying to
analyse how and why they were left in such miserable heaps. I wonder what would
be the man's side of the story equal sadness or cocky deliverance out of
There are a couple of brave and self-dependant poems, on life at 40, with Angela
Ramplings endearing lines There is nothing a drink cannot settle at forty. . .
but, all lovers can remember a moment when they were not alone.'
'Sundae Song' (Janice K. Taylor) and 'Me Tarzan' (Joan Batchelor) are cockily on
top of the male-female situation, and Patricia Duffin's 'Roles' made me chortle,
with her 'It's kind of you to offer, but no thanks, I don't want to sand your
floors', as she put the whole question in a nutshell. Sarah Ward's 'Who made the
Rules?' is an interesting experiment - a poem with a mirror image, 'Man' is
inserted for Woman', in an identical context, in a bid for equality.
Miserable 'kitchen sink' poems, (I suppose they must be written) are at a
minimum, with positive acceptance of the 'mess' in Angela Ramplings 'Gentle
Engineering', with beautiful lines 'I am still a woman, and I love the feel of
clean linen, flour running through my fingers. . . .'
While the anthology has hardly any international flavour, two poems, 'Piaf (Ruth
Allinson) and 'Beethovens Late Quartets' (Sarah Ward) I admired especially for
their choice of subject. Piafs working class tenacity, her determination to live
and give to life, and Beethovens lonely tenacity, enabling him to continue to
write music when he could hear nothing, and so bring us his gift, have always
moved me too. Listen and read, O ye Men.
ZURICH WORKER WRITERS. Arbeitstraume.
48 pp. in German. 2 sFr. Garnet d' Atelier, No 1. 32 pp in French. 2 sFr.
Werkstatt Scheibender Arbeiter, Zurich, Postfach 2026, 8040 Zurich.
David Craig once wrote something to the effect that the socialist literary
tradition tends to produce volumes of denunciatory writing but not much by way
of celebration. If that criticism has at times been levelled at FIREWEED and
VOICES, at least these two publications have been aware of the problem. From
what I have seen of the "worker-writer" movement in the USA and West Germany,
there does not appear to be this same awareness.
In most of the pieces from the Zurich Writers Workshop, who see themselves as
part of the West German movement, the various authors are like pilgrims making
their painful progress through the alien world of the industrial worker. The
pilgrims are aware of the strangeness of the things that are taken for granted
by their fellows, probably because they have already experienced something
better. The pilgrims carry their hopes with them on their backs, while their
fellows wait half-blind and big-footed in the minefield of capitalism, waiting
to be winched into the future. Crude though the caricature may be, this view is
implicit. The picture is a depressing one.
No doubt the very fact of being a class-conscious worker in a country where your
fellows are firmly integrated into a classless philistine culture leads to a
sense of isolation and political vanguardism. It also helps to explain why the
writers consider their collective workshop sessions the most important aspect of
their work, and why they concentrate on content as opposed to form in their
Unfortunately this false dichotomy tends to work to the detriment of both:
preoccupied as they are with the experiences of the pilgrim, the authors neglect
the bystanders, fail to observe the qualities of humour and resourcefulness with
which their fellows cope with the world of work (without always having the same
alternatives to fall back on).
The results are too close to political diatribe to be entertaining and are
therefore unlikely to be read by many of those for whom they are intended. In my
opinion, they also draw one-sided conclusions about the qualities required to
change the world.
The writers' stated aim is to depict the world of work, broadly defined as "the
social context of the worker as explained by the conditions of work in society"
but this begs the question of who for. They would no doubt say their fellow
workers, but the whole tone addresses itself to the outsider rather than those
who have known nothing else.
Perhaps it is only in a country like Britain with its awareness of "class" that
it is possible to have a worker-writer movement that is culturally rather than
politically defined. It is perhaps worth asking why the worker-writer movement
has not developed (to my knowledge) in countries like France and Italy. Is it
If much of this seems like sniping from a safe position, let me say that if I
lived in West Germany, I would be sorely tempted to defect to the East and
become a "Writer"!
FUN AT FINE FARE by Paul Wilson, (45p plus
postage) JUST MY LUCK by Frances Holden (45p plus postage) both from Gatehouse
Project, St. Luke's, Sawley Road, Miles Platting, Manchester M10 8DB.
Gatehouse Project, since it began work in 1977, has built a reputation for
careful and sensitive writing workshops with adult literacy students in groups
around the Manchester area. The process of producing printed publications of
writing develops from discussion and collaboration at all stages with the
authors, for whom this is a first experience of public appearance in print.
Out of the 12 books so far published by Gatehouse, 8 - including these two-are
texts by single authors. My main regret is that the casual reader is told
nothing about the warmth of the process which produced them, and the barest
minimum about - or by - the writer as to the genesis of the book. For the reader
(whether a customer at a Federation bookstall, or an adult literacy student in
another part of the country) needs to know from the start that these are no
ordinary books. They are not primers, and nor are they poems, written either by
teachers of reading or by published poets. They are written by writers who in a
real sense already knew their readers, who had already tested out their writing
with fellow readers and writers.
We know this, in a way, from the texts themselves. They read like talk. Frances
Holden's first words are like a reply to a conversational question:
'On the Saturday
I should have gone to the wedding.'
You know you are in for a good story. It's one of those tales of personal
disaster which are funny to look back on, but dreadful at the time. And it is
funny. For me, the drawings are much less effective than the writing, and
detract from Frances' story rather than adding to it. But it's a good read - and
all the better for being inviting to the doubtful reader. Short lines of print
and large typeface are a hallmark of Gatehouse work.
Of the two publications, I find Paul Wilson's the most effective. The
photographs strengthen the writing, and both draw the reader in to this account
of supermarket life from the inside. No customer will ever have the chance of
seeing the shop as page 5 of Paul's book shows it to us: a picture of the
deserted rows of freezers and shelves with his words below:
is quiet and still.'
And I treasure Paul's wonderful word 'skrackle' beneath a
photograph of a small child doing just that to an egg from the egg display:
'The toddlers run up to them and skrackle them and throw them on the floor.'
As a literacy student in Brighton once said to me a few years ago: 'We've got to
read something: and I'm bloody sure I'm not reading Andy Pandy'. Gatehouse books
are an important contribution to a growing literature which is, in its own
right, good writing, and at the same time easy to read for people normally shut
out from print. I hope their next book will have a short introduction: and it
would help if they could print the price on the cover. Send for their
publications list if you haven't already. They are good books for anyone to
SE1 Peoples History.