cover size 205 x 295 (A4)
THE HIGHEST COMMON FACTOR
One of the strengths of VOICES and the worker writer movement
is the breadth and wealth of individual experience reflecting the variety of
working class life throughout the country. This is important when the media (a
TV studio, for instance, which can create 'the thirties' with a few tell-tale
props) distorts the lives of working people past and present, pitching
themselves at a stereotyped audience, the man in the street, reducing the
working class to 'a lowest common denominator' .
The first time I heard this last phrase was at junior school when we had to
wrestle with some sums called LCDs. Whatever happened, I ask, to the next lot of
sums we tried, HCFs, that is the 'Highest Common Factors'? What are the factors
that good stories, poems, and articles have got in common? Without trying to pin
anything down about the words themselves, isn't it that they get through to you?
Something about them communicated something real.
To find out if a piece of writing 'works', and how it can be made even more
effective, reading by other people in a workshop is invaluable. Finally, work is
chosen to be published. For most of us, this is a new experience, to be a writer
in print. For many of the new writers in this issue, writing itself is a
relatively new achievement, as they have been adult literacy students.
As well as the hurdles of other working class writers - low confidence, a
literature and a schooling that has not answered their needs - they have had to
overcome yet another written language has been out of reach. But the degree of
difficulties and the experiences are so varied not to mention the people who
have them, that there is no stereotyped adult literacy student.
Some writing by students has already expressed the kind of alienation that they
have felt, and some ways they have had to conceal their isolation from those
with whom they work. But there are many non-readers (and not all literacy
students are non-readers) who have a great facility with the spoken word. Today
the oral tradition, story telling etc., is neglected as we put maybe too much
value on the printed word. A new reader, unfamiliar with the ponderous literary
phrasing of books, has a chance to develop a natural style and an original
approach. As a literacy student gains the ability to write what he or she could
already put into words, a lifetime's experience, struggles, humorous
observations and hopes, a writer evolves, needing some help with spelling like
most of us. Not all adult literacy students may want their writing to be shared
by others - at first the motivation may be simply to write legibly. But all have
got courage to tackle the hurdle for themselves, and to overcome it takes a lot
There is a danger that the spontaneity of expression, a potential wealth
untapped, may be lost unless control rests with the student. The workshop from
which the writing in this issue (see p. 5) has been taken has teachers, as any
adult literacy group must have. But they are particularly aware of the need for
the writing not to be teacher-controlled, as it may become under the influence
of teachers in many adult literacy classes. So the writing either takes the form
in which the student put it to paper, with some spelling help, or to help the
slower flow of words from halting expression, spoken words are 'scribed',
exactly as they are. Often a tape is used from which the speaker chooses what is
to be transcribed. The writing is chosen by its composer for selection by the
rest of the group of writers, for reading aloud in public and for publication.
The workshop, which is one held at Gatehouse, in Miles Platting, Manchester, is
run on lines similar to others of groups in the Federation. Gatehouse Project's
last report says:
"We are at present developing long-term writing workshops in which we join with
people interested in writing and who belong to literacy groups. The workshops
give people the time and space to enjoy writing and taping and to grow in
confidence about what they write."
In including writing from this workshop in the magazine, it should be judged by
the same criteria as other writing. This and future writing by adults who have
been 'new readers' needs a readership if it is to grow, as any writing needs
feedback. Does it communicate something real about the world of the writer? The
voices of those who have not been able to write need expression in order to
grow. The article in last VOICES from 'Write First Time' put it that "Those who
suffer in silence continue to suffer." The hurdles we have overcome to be
writers are shared in common with literacy student writers, and let us not
forget them. But also there may be much more shared in common when the best
expression of individual's lives comes to light.
Di Williams is a member of Womanswrite, a Commonword Workshop.
INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE
You worked hard enough -
So hard you forget you have.
Your body and mind both ache
For lack of exercise.
You live in this greenhouse now
Well fed, with plenty of light -
Conditions ideal for the growth of plants
But human beings need the windows left open,
Or at least the latches to the windows
Left within their reach.
And when friends become visitors
You have a sign on your face -
"NOT AT HOME".
By the end of the visit,
They think you've come to,
The signs removed.
But it's only you fulfilling expectations
And realising, by the weight of being visited
That this is as much a home as any was.
Steve Wingate is a member of Heeley Writers. He used to work in a
home for the mentally handicapped.
ONE OF US
It was a short-stay psychiatric unit, an annexe to the General
Hospital. Harry had been there the longest of us all. Most of us were gradually
surfacing from our private hells, and, desperate for company, would gravitate
towards the charge nurse's desk, the focus of social intercourse in the ward.
There we would sit, many of us for hours on end, barely acknowledging each
other's presence, but taking comfort from a sense of it, in various degrees of
confusion and loneliness. Harry would sometimes shamble in our direction. On his
better days, he might laboriously lower himself into an armchair. He never
Not that the rest of us were prodigal with our words. The nursing assistants
made heroic efforts to kindle a spark of interest or response. Their tone was
always kindly, and we had learned, like submissive children, to enjoy the secure
dependence of our social roles.
Elsie, for instance, just emerging from the self-imposed starvation of the
chronic anorexic, clung gimlet-like to her corner seat, as Megan, the staff
nurse on duty lectured her: calm and loving and threatening.
"That was another lovely porkchop Albert brought you last night. He's very
worried about you Elsie. He'll be cross with you again if we tell him you didn't
eat your dinner. Now what are we going to do with you? You do want to go home
next weekend, don't you Elsie?"
"Yes", said feeble, terrified Elsie from her heart, clutching for life itself to
Megan's eyes. Elsie was putting on weight now, but still so thin, she seemed to
have less flesh than blood, red purplish blood coursing through veins to
red-rimmed eyes and red-rimmed finger nails, and still at every meal-time,
rigid, she was coaxed and threatened through every mouthful of food.
"I thought you did." And Megan turned away, smiling. Elsie was stranded again.
White-faced, pathetic, fortyish, waiting for supper, waiting for Albert's visit.
In violet crimplene and black bouffant hairdo: the effort at survival.
Next to her was Gladys. Stalwart companions, they bunched together sheep-like on
the minor activities that constituted the hospital day - the trips to the shop,
the distribution of pills, the regular meals and coffee breaks. Gladys was on
the mend again: at first she had needed two nurses, one behind and one in front,
to push her donkey-stubborn to the toilets; now she could go on her own. The
shaking had stopped; she had knitted a dishcloth in therapy last week and was to
go into town on Monday.
Not so, the pasty, aging, joyless Doris. "I won't get better dear," she
announced, unshakeable, between cigarettes. It became a battle of wills. "They
don't know what they're doing," she would insist cheerfully, and to prove it,
she sat there in gloomy silence, glaring it out, incurable. Occasionally, when
they got tough with her, she would grudgingly make a token concession, agree to
have her hair done.
But she always had the last word. "They don't know what they're doing dear," she
called spitefully down the corridor, "I won't get better", the parting shot of
the sulky child.
Arthur was more forthright in the expression of similar views. His early morning
cry rallied the whole ward, "Bugger the bloody place", and stirred even the
gentle Miss Grey to a hissing display of anger. Arthur was confined to a
wheelchair, incontinent in every sense of the word, given to violent displays of
temper, unable to control language or bodily functions, his words coming out
with wild jerks of a badly swollen tongue, his pyjama flies permanently undone.
He slept a lot of the time.
But even Arthur raised his head and curbed his copious spits at visiting time.
They fastened his dressing gown, gave him teeth and combed his hair. He sat up
expectant, for one night last week they'd brought his new born baby nephew in to
see him. "A new baby," he said, cradling it, marvelling. But then the joyous
mood dissolved, he coughed up his phlegm and handed the baby back to his father.
"You can have that baby for £60,000," he informed the ward thickly.
Elsie's Albert never failed her. Bursting with red-cheeked health, he made his
brisk and cheerful entry on the dot, goodies for Erring Elsie in a carrier under
his arm. A neighbour had come to see Gladys. They sat there in nervous silence,
alarmed at Arthur's hideous, spluttering closeness. Chat was desultory: visitors
talked quietly, spasmodically, emotions suppressed, searching for words, faint
gestures across measureless distances. This was our life-line.
But Harry waited in vain. At first, we did not realise he was expecting his
brother. Harry never had visitors, and as he lumbered, glazed and trembling
round the ward, gripping the walls aghast, we had learned to expect none. He
seemed a special case, madder than merely mad, entirely isolate, staring
But then Miss Grey pointed it out: Harry was crying; that shocked and tortured
frame had still some breath for gentle tears.
"Never mind, Harry", and Megan patted his hand, "I expect Cyril is working
Harry was bowed, still weeping.
That night he came to my door: he stumbled in, wild sunken eyes unseeing. Taut
fierce I turned him out, frightened at such a need. I shut the door, prayed for
deliverance. I'd never prayed before.
The next day was the last amongst us. I wondered at first if he was picking up.
At least he seemed to be talking. There he was, more determined than usual,
negotiating the corridor less blindly. But then I heard the manic cry and knew
"I want a Mars bar," he told the charge nurse urgently. "I want a Mars bar," he
raised his voice.
"Shh Harry dear. We'll get you one."
"I want a Mars bar," he screeched it out, wheeled round in our direction, lunged
towards us. "I want a Mars bar."
We all resented this, the unpredictable. We bore with Arthur's early morning
tantrums, we listened unperturbed to Doris' ravings, but this was unexpected.
Harry we knew as docile.
"Shut up," Miss Grey hissed, vicious.
"We heard you the first time," snarled clever Doris.
We kept our distance.
Sadly he turned away. They led him back down the corridor, his incantation
quieter now, a dying song.
Those were the first and only words we heard him say.
That teatime they let him loose again. "Doesn't Harry look smart," said Megan
tenderly. "He's going out today."
He was wearing his Sunday suit, strangely incongruous after those weeks of
"You going home, Harry," came the envious cry across the ward.
"Cyril coming to pick you up?" suggested Gladys.
Harry kept silence now; his suit lent dignity, concealing a human wreck.
We watched him to the lift, his suitcase following. He did not say good-bye.
Like us, he had not understood.
"Never thought he'd be the first to go," we said, alerted, insecure. Why was the
door still closed on us? "He must be getting better."
"Oh no," said Megan. "He's not gone home. Harry's too sick. They've taken him
out to Broadfields. He'll be happier there."
We stared at the floor, our thoughts unspoken. He'd been the longest here, the
first to go, and not back home. What about us?
"That's terrible, Lord," said Arthur.
Sue Gaukroger is a member of the Gynerate Collective of women writers. She is
also part of a publishing project involving old people in the village where she
lives near Stoke On Trent.
Blackshine taxi took her to that home
it was for the best.
She saw crowds in a mirror
hardly knows she's gone.
I will have her tablecloth four chairs
And a snap of my face as a child.
She can't understand who I am.
Confused among her visitors
With a moon to blank the window
and warm clothes
She's better off. We stay here
Unhinge her empty mirror
Robert Hamburger is a member of Basement Writers.
loss of dignity
is it as bad as it looks
this dependance, we won't
know until we are there
Josie Anderson is a member of
Gatehouse's women's writers group.
THERE HAVE BEEN WORKER
There have been worker-writers' groups before. Yet sadly we
know very little about them. A recent conference organised by Andy Croft, a WEA
tutor and Birmingham University Extramural Department, gave a detailed, picture
of a group of working class and middle class writers who met as a group in
Birmingham in the 1930s. They were known as 'The Birmingham Group’, and
consisted of Walter Allen, Walter Brierley, Peter Chamberlain, Leslie Jalward
and John Hampson.
All of their work is out of print, as is so much important working class writing
of previous generations. Conferences or day schools such as these revive our
interest and increase the pressure to republish this important work.
Much of this day conference was taken up with family and friends' recollections
of these writers and detailed outlines of the books they wrote. These mostly
forgotten writers came alive again, and their problems as writers - trying to
find time to get the work done, trying to find publishers, arguing with each
other about form and style - seemed very contemporary.
Walter Allen is still alive, but only one of his six excellent novels is still
in print, All In A Lifetime. Walter Brierley, a Derbyshire miner who
corresponded with the Birmingham writers, published four novels, the finest of
which - and a classic account of the demoralisation of unemployment - The Means
Test Man is apparently going to be reprinted this year. John Hampson's most well
known book, Saturday Night at the Greyhound, like many of his other novels tried
to portray the predicament of a young homosexual man in the tough environment of
a mining village: this also apparently is to be reprinted, and is highly
recommended, not least for the author's courage in writing so personally about
such matters, in those highly censorious days.
It is to be hoped that in other towns contemporary working class writers,
together with local historians and teachers, will search out of the work of
earlier writers and make this known again. The firmer the foundations we build
on, the stronger our movement will be-.
Ken Worpole used to work at Centreprise in Hackney and has been involved in
publishing a lot of working class history and autobiography. He is treasurer of
the Federation of Worker Writers.
Unlike certain members of the literary establishment who believe that 'there are
too many writers and not enough readers,' worker writers have always stressed
the importance of encouraging more people to write. The short pieces on this
page are an attempt to represent this part of the movement. We hope that 'New
Writers' will be a regular feature of future VOICES. The writers here are all
members of Gatehouse's women's writers group.
After a heated discussion with a friend of mine about woman's role in society, I
put my pen to paper and produced this short piece, and may I say I hope it will
provoke plenty of discussion:
Half of you deserve your lot, afraid things won't go your way, wanting all or
nothing, afraid to think in case he punishes you, in bed or out. Tread carefully
and smoulder until you are about to pop. Can't open up my feelings, I will be
classed as wicked but I feel them just the same. You were born free and have
your life distorted by different experiences until you end up some sort of
concoction they name Woman. Why let it happen? Do we need a new system? Must
woman prostitute herself in marriage to lead a worthwhile life? Hurry up Brave
Spring is so delightful it must appeal
like a new born baby
so pure and clean and fresh
as they both unfurl their precious buds
to an audience eager to admire
as you see the miracle yet again
Born in a city tower block,
Alkatraz without the rock,
Sent to overcrowded schools,
Beaten up if you break the rules.
And our mothers sit and cry,
Because they know we're gonna die,
Beat the bulge with slimming meals,
Go to the seaside in stolen wheels.
You better watch out for the 'Boys in Blue',
You never know who's watching you,
Solicitors dressed in pinstriped suits,
Want us to wear marching boots.
This could be the story of anyone,
Just like daughter, just like son,
How about the 'Land of Hope & Glory',
Was it just a fairy story?
READING &WRITING PROBLEMS
I would just like to say to people if anybody should have problems with their
reading and writing and feel they would like to write an article, but they are
worrying about their spelling, I feel they should not worry about their spelling
but put their ideas down on paper. With doing this it could help people in the
group to start getting their ideas down on paper and then talk to their teacher
about spelling problems.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
How 11 people survived as adult non-readers in a modern society that doesn't
accept or tolerate not being able to read and write. The book encourages an
awareness of reading and writing as a separate skill, _where some people can and
some can't with no shame attached to it.
£1.20. The 'Gatehouse Project, St. Lukes, Sawley Road, Miles Platting,
London Voices was formed after a meeting called in Marx House, London, in
1974. Its main aim was to promote VOICES in London and the South.
It was not until 1979 that we became a poetry workshop in our own right. Meeting
monthly we gradually increased our skill in analysing, helping each other, and
passing judgement. The improvement has happened amongst a group of people from
very different backgrounds (engine driver, printer, social worker, housewife,
secretary, building worker, retired and unemployed persons to mention a few that
have come to the group). Nearly all are self-educated, and we are trying to
produce work which is accurate and truthful, reflecting the world as we see it.
Much of the work points to considerable political insight between the lines at
least, since the outright political poem is the hardest one to write, and those
who are brave enough to try, get the stiffest criticism.
The group has always been about equal numbers men and women, and the so-called
personal poems often written by women (and men on occasion) are particularly
valued. We publish them in a bi-monthly Broadsheet, and we are hoping to print
an anthology we have compiled.
The group now receives small sponsorship from the Co-op, who also helps produce
the Broadsheet. In exchange we read our work at Co-op Guilds, peace meetings
etc., as well as at CND meetings, cultural festivals, socials. We meet in the
Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell Green, or the Metropolitan Pub, Farringdon Rd., last
Friday in the month.
THERE'S A FOG OVER
There's a fog hangs over Liverpool
The fog of C.S. gas
There's a plastic bullet waiting
to go through your head lass
My ring upon your finger
Is shining burnished gold
Love me now or never lass
We never may grow old
My brother served in Belfast
When they shot the Paddies down
I never thought the bullets
And the gas would hit our town
I never thought that Liverpool
Would see a barricade
And the C.S. gas come choking us
For petrol bombs we'd made
I thought the British copper
would protect me with his life
I never thought a bullet
Might come and kill my wife
I don't know much of politics
I didn't learn in school
But my eyes and ears are teaching me
That there's one golden rule
The politicians told the cops
To follow R.U.C.
And now the gas and bullets
Are turned on you and me
The workers always get it
Be they black or be they white
But they're rioters or terrorists
If they have the cheek to fight
My brother spoke of "terrorists"
When they shot the Paddies down
But now the bloody terrorists
Have come to Toxteth town
And they don't wear masks or berets
And their name's not I.R.A.
They're protecting Law and Order
In the good old British way.
She sails her craft single-handed,
Outward-bound, no harbour in view,
Not chartered, the course of this voyage,
She had waited too long to make plans.
Looking back on the years left behind her,
She remembers her hopes slowly dying,
Her tenderness unshared, unanswered,
Submerging her essence, her soul.
Calming the wake of his anger,
soothing, placating, explaining,
Nights spent in dreamless exhaustion,
What use did her dreams have for him?
So long alone in the shadows,
The morning light dazzles her eyes,
Yet she welcomes the pain, and she savours
the chill autumn wind on her skin.
For these the signs of awakening,
Chrysaliding, rebirth as a person,
And her courage in facing the future,
Still the tremor of fear in her heart.
All alone at my sink
Pots and pans don't need my brain
I slowly remember all the hurt you've done me
Now my baby feels it too
that alone is unforgivable and where are you now
still working? I'm the last to know
can't stop thinking about the telephone call that Sunday
Still after all, they say it's only natural
Once bitten, never forgotten
Where is he, the husband, the father,
she needs you The son can't care anymore
too many - not this time luv, I'm playing darts –
Well, won't ask anymore
But the daughter - the bugger - the full of love - full of life
Still wants, still needs.
All alone at my sink
My tummy feels odd, like first time at a job,
like waiting outside the headmaster's room
Now my throat has a lump
Hurt me all you like, I yell inside
I've broad shoulders, I can cope - what lies –
Don't dare hurt my blonde baby girl
I love them both, I'm here when they need me
But him, where's he? where ever? when ever?
Oh man you are a fool to yourself.
'To Japan' is Chapter 11 of Bill's account of his experiences as a prisoner of
(August - September 1944)
Already I could see myself stretched out on the deck reading "Anne of Green
Gables" which I had thoughtfully omitted to return to the camp library. I hadn't
volunteered but the journey would make a welcome break.
We boarded a truck to Manila where we stayed up all night drawing our kit,
including a coconut pith helmet. We made a brave show as we marched over the
Pasig River to the harbour. I recognised one or two Filipinos, but none
recognised me. They looked at us in sorrow.
We lined up on the quay and in the distance could see a medium-sized ship, the
"Something-or-other Maru", and the front of our line going over the gangway. We
moved at a rapid pace but it seemed there would inevitably be a delay whilst the
ship cast off and another took its place. But the line kept moving. There was no
Rough hands received us. Everything was taken from us, except our mess kits,
shorts and singlets, and flung down into the lower hold. Some of us were pushed
into meshed cages in which all we could do was to lie down. "Who's that bastard
pissing on me?" enquired my neighbour, but it was only perspiration from the
Chow time came and a flurry of flying figures, some getting more than one
ration, some none at all. In our cages we got nothing. It was difficult to know
what was happening. "Feel the man next to you and see if he's still breathing"
yelled my favourite M.O. above the tumult, although how we could do that I
I thought of the "Altmark", known to the British and American public as "The
Hell Ship". Conveying British POWs to Germany she was seized by the Royal Navy
who boarded her with drawn cutlasses. Much was made of the prisoners' privations
for in those early days of the war British propaganda was aimed at bringing
American into the war.
What cinema audiences saw of course was a reconstruction, but even from that it
was evident that the lads were seated in comfort, smoking and playing cards. I
wondered what the scribes back home would have made of this little lot.
Fore and aft
The next morning the Nips graciously allowed 600 of us to go forward, leaving
900 aft. Welcome as this was it still wasn't first class travel. By day there
was a constant stream waiting to use the can, so there was more room. But at
night it was difficult to find a place to park. You sat on the steel deck, your
legs straddling the man's in front, the man's behind straddling yours - like
negro slaves, except that we weren't chained. Sleep was no hardship. Slipping in
between two sleepers you wouldn't know, except for a muffled oath, they were
still alive. Once I had a bright idea. There was a vacant place beside the can
and I was able to lie flat out. It started to rain, warm at first as one might
expect, but getting warmer. Some poor fellow, half asleep, had missed the can.
Hit the deck
Three or four times a day this receptacle was hoisted aloft and the contents
emptied overboard. One day the string broke:
On the way to Japan
most of our time
was spent round the can
which, as required,
was hauled aloft
and emptied overboard.
On a sad day
the string gave way
allowing the contents
to descend on
the assembled company.
But we couldn't
the way to Japan,
and soon were lying
in our own despite
as to the manner born.
I had another bright idea. A flesh wound wouldn't heal and I reported sick. As
it grew dark the medic drew attention to the chalk line that marked the limits
of the sick bay. "Now don't forget", he said to those outside the charmed
circle, "We stay on our side of the line and you stay on yours." So once again I
stretched out thinking how lucky I was, and woke in a communal grave with more
and more bodies being flung on top of me. My good neighbours had stuck to their
side of the bargain until overtaken by sleep. I fought my way to the surface and
discharged myself as soon as it was light.
There was no-one to greet me for the other Limeys had been left aft and I was
one amongst 600 Americans. This wouldn't have deterred me for in the Philippines
where there were 8 of us and 8,000 of them, we had been made much of. But the
atmosphere wasn't conducive to making friends.
Every little group buzzed like an angry hive and these manifestations of
discontent echoing round the steel vault of the hold, sometimes reached menacing
A wry ghost I wasn't conscious of being lonely; only of having no place to call
Some of the first arrivals must have managed to hang on to various possessions
for the Chief Medical Officer, who was unfortunately the senior officer on
board, used to madden us by keeping up a constant stream of information about
items lost, and found. He may have thought this had some therapeutic value, like
the orchestras that continued to play as Nazi victims were led to the gas
chambers. If his object was to encourage us to give vent to our natural feelings
some of the answers he was receiving as to the disposal of these items suggested
he was only too successful; but the temperature required to be lowered, not
raised. Fortunately there were amongst us two characters who were competent to
The first was a joker who had managed to sling a hammock and spent his days
reading "The sun is my undoing". Either he sympathised with us or our brawling
made it difficult for him to concentrate; at any rate he offered to read to us,
and no-one could have had a more appreciative audience. "Anne of Green Gables"
where are you now? Down in the bilge with my precious letters and a pair of
boots anyone could be proud of.
The second character was the Padre (R.C.) who was able to command silence by
telling us what we wanted to hear. "Hail Mary, Full of grace..." he would begin,
and silence would fall like the setting sun. "You boys are sick... not
physically but mentally sick.... you'll need a course of rehabilitation when
this is over." This was re-assuring. Nothing was said about the US planes and
subs that were attacking shipping. We had heard gunfire and seen flames
spiralling from what we could only assume was a ship in our convoy. If we were
hit there could be no scaling the sheer walls of the hold. We would be trampled
underfoot, and the chances were the Nips would turn their guns on us.
Not a drop
"Who's drunk my water and pissed in the bottle?" enquires one fellow of his
mates, emptying the contents over them. Figures detach themselves from the main
body, and blows are exchanged amidst boos and cheers, until everyone sinks into
his former lassitude.
The Nips weren't enjoying this any more than we were, and after a couple of
warnings they cut off our water. For the first time since captivity hunger no
longer bothered us.
Women come aboard to clear the lower holds. Our cherished possessions have
disappeared but our boots have been salvaged. Each man is issued with a pair
regardless of size or whether they be left or right, and we step ashore with
them dangling round our necks.
Some of us are taken to a hall where I for one, pillowed on my new-found boots,
sleep soundly. I see water spurting from a rock, cascading down into an
ever-growing stream, and wake to hear one of our chaps asking the guard to fetch
some; which he does, and is slapped by the sergeant for his pains.
Welcome to Japan!
A WEDDING IN THE IRISH
On the slipped lawn she stands, with careful spreading
Of her full-skirted gown, the veil of lace
Only half-hides the red-gold hair soft-falling
And leaves revealed the young lines of her face
He is lean-limbed, in well-cut light grey suiting
The dark eyes of the Celt, a jutting jaw,
Probably from Blackrock's quiet Dublin suburb
Looking as if he'd never roused the Law
He takes her hand and points to where, half-smiling,
The camera-man waits to record the day
Flutter of girls flower-wreathed and click of shutter
Captures Time's moment against Dalkey Bay
Guests gravitate towards the hotel, laughing,
Or lean on the sea wall to watch the tower
Of Dalkey Island, bride and groom still linger
Eye to eye holding back life's heightened hour
What are they thinking, poised among the roses?
She, Juliet-like, of night's surrendering breath?
Does she remember that North of the Border,
Nuptials are sealed with shots, smashed limbs and death?
And he, on fire tonight to prove his manhood
Feasting on love, sweet union of the flesh –
Will he remember those young hunger-strikers
Wasting their lives away inside Long Kesh?
FALLING OUT OF LOVE
Falling out of love's like walking through showers
when the rainstorm's over, but you're not so sure,
and every drop of rain, you're running for cover,
soaked through already, so why should you care,
but anyway you dodge under the first tree
and watch the water trickle off the branches, gleaming
in a bright light from somewhere, and look up and see
the sunlight on the next hill, but still can't believe it.
Kathleen Horseman's review of NOT EXPECTING MIRACLES by Alice Linton was
thoughtful and interesting. However, what she had to say about introductions did
put my back up. Maybe that's only because I co-wrote the introduction with Jean Milloy, but I don't think so.
Kathleen wants Alice's book to make its own statement: I would say that Alice
Linton’s book, like all Federation writing, is not just its own statement.
Between Alice writing down her life story and the publication of it as a book
there was a whole wealth of work - not just work by Alice, Betsy, Jean and
myself - and others - in making that particular book, but a whole tradition of
creating a space, the encouragement and the achievement of working class
writing. For me, part of the importance of the Federation and the working class
writing it promotes, is the way it has brought producing a book into the range
of things that anyone can do. And I firmly believe that part of that process of
making writing and publishing more accessible to those of us who grew up
thinking it wasn't for the likes of us is to write an introduction that sets out
who did what, how long it took, and who the people are who helped. If we don't
have introductions then I think we run the risk of having our books just appear,
in much the same way anyone else's does and we lose that valuable exchange of
skill and information. We are different from the literary and the commercial
publishers and I think our introductions don't just follow a set formula, as
Kathleen complained, but are a very important way of showing just how we differ.
At the AGM I bought and read Peter Kearney's Glasgow From People's Publications,
it is a great collection of writing but has no introduction, not even a few
lines on the back cover, not even captions to the photographs. The book made its
own statement in so far as the poems were enjoyable and good to read and the
prose writing was informative too. But knowing nothing of who wrote them, or
how, or why, leaves me feeling something very important had been missed out.
Best wishes, Rebecca O'Rourke
I was glad to see
Phil Boyd's article in Voices 28. I have felt for some time
that the question of the quality of working class writing was being fudged and
it is good that it is being aired.
As a writer I see myself as a craftsman (with apologies for the sexist term). I
am at one with that mythical (perhaps) Rolls Royce worker who said that he
didn't work to a tolerance, 'it's either right or it's junk.' I don't think any
real worker finds difficulty in the idea that if a job, or a poem, is worth
doing, it's worth doing well.
Doing it well, in this context, means communicating, getting over the facts and
the feel of what you're writing about. In that sense Mickey Spillane is a good
writer: his style is dead right for the sexist, sadistic rubbish that is his
content. I loathe his matter, but his manner never bores me - and the second
half of that equation is the mark of a good writer.
I liked Voices 28. It was all good writing - I speak as a graduate (from a
working class family, I hasten to add) - and there was nothing in it not
immediately accessible to a working class family - I speak as a social worker
who has to communicate with them daily.
Can I now take up Wendy Whitfield's letter and suggest that Voices can enjoy a
useful relationship with the FWWCP and its member groups? If the job of the
groups is firstly to get ordinary working class people writing (never mind the
quality, feel the reality), it is secondly to help them, once started, to learn
to write well. What Voices should, in my view, be publishing is the best of the
member groups, the people who have learned. We should be able to say to new
writers, 'Joe Bloggs started just like you - and now he gets published in
Voices.' (Sorry - I'm being sexist again.)
Elitist? I'm sure it is - and it's elitist to prefer a piece of furniture made
by an expert worker to one made by an apprentice; but the expert was an
apprentice once, and we do our members no favours by helping them not to
complete their apprenticeship.
Yours fraternally, Martin F. Jenkins
Had a day-trip to London - and met up with your lovely magazine - after a short
period receiving it regularly in Norwich - so straight away - here
is my subscription.
Please do not fold and keep it up with lovely poems, short stories etc. As a
working class woman I can relate to it all - love it. Keep in touch.
A LETTER FROM MRS MAKANT
"It's either Mister Makant, or Driver
Makant t' thee" - the entire signing-on point, crowded with guards and locomen
on a busy Monday morning, went silent. The young management trainee immediately
wished he'd picked on someone else to exercise his new-found authority. Ezra
Makant was the crustiest of the old-hand drivers at Blackburn and the management
gave him a wide berth. "And if tha wants me to move that engine, it'd help to
Apart from inbred awkwardness and sheer cunning - shared by many of the old
hands - Ezra had one special characteristic: obsessional inquisitiveness. It
probably began with the great interest many old railwaymen took in the Sunday
List, and seeing who was working their rest day. Fights had been known to break
out when one man suspected another of doing him out of a Sunday. The roster
clerks were old and wise enough to make sure Ezra got his Sundays in, so he
gradually broadened his interests to cover the doings of everyone at the depot -
as a sort of pastime. He would normally be found sat in the messroom, just by
the door. Casually perusing any paper he could find lying around, enveloped in a
haze of cigarette smoke - he looked harmless enough. The door would open, and
Ezra with leopard like cunning would spring the trap. "Whod art' doin?" was the
usual opening, and after that - if the victim showed willing - he just piled in.
"What time art’ on?" "Wheer's tha bin?" "Who wi?" until the poor bloke was
crying for mercy. Some of the secondmen ended up believing in reincarnation -
Ezra could only have been a throwback from the Spanish Inquisition.
To look at him, you'd say he'd had a hard life. His face was striking. Thin and
drawn, heavily lined and set off by sparse wiry hair. When he spoke the effort
seemed Herculean. His eyes would almost close as he pulled his face into a
grimace. His dress was fully in keeping with his looks. Winter or summer it was
the same railway overcoat - at least three sizes too big, acting as a sort of
bell tent for his meagre frame. He swore by the old 'company' overcoats - the
pre-1923 Lancashire and Yorkshire ones, nothing so modern as LMS! Behind his
locker was a stack of unopened boxes - containing his two-yearly issue of coats.
His boots were a similar vintage to the coat, though he made the occasional
concession to the leather trade by having them re-soled. Tradition has it that
the old railwaymen used to take great pride in having their boots highly
polished. If that is so, it was one tradition which passed Ezra by. The oil and
grime which held his pair together, combined with the coat and Ezra himself -
all made for a moving steam age relic. (Though many of the supervisors at the
depot came to regard him as a stationary exhibit!).
Don't get the impression Ezra lacked human warmth. He loved a joke, though it
was usually at someone else's expense. A favourite was to torment guards by
hooking the engine off from the rest of the train -after the guard had laboured
long and hard to get the train ready. When he got the 'tip' from the brake van,
Ezra would innocently set off, minus wagons and brake. When the guard came
panting down to the engine, Ezra would lean out and enquire "Hast fergeet t'hook
I'd had my fair share of Ezra's 'jokes', but when I worked with him on a long
distance job - Carlisle - a different side of him emerged. The train was
fully-braked so the guard's van was not necessary. I was riding in the loco cab
with Ezra, and after the initial enquiries about "my doings" the conversation
moved to wider things. His knowledge of his native East Lancashire was
encyclopaedic. Anecdotes about old Burnley characters, the Pendle Witches,
Chartist riots all flowed from him. With a bit of prompting from me, he began to
open up about his own life (I thought this justified because he made the most
intimate enquiries about other people's!) He'd started as a cleaner at the
small Colne L & Y ('Gown Lanky') shed when he was fourteen. When he reached
twenty he moved to Rose Grove - a few miles down the line - to get a fireman's
job. Then came the big move. It was wartime and the company was short of firemen
on the Midland at Derby. He signed on at the shed on Thursday morning and the
foreman handed him a letter:
Fireman E. Makant Rose Grove
Arrange to report at Derby (Midland Shed) 9:00 aw Monday 6.2.41 –
District Loco Superintendent
Four days to get packed, move, get lodgings - and Ezra was not unusual in his
experience. Some of his mates got sent further south to the big London sheds.
After the initial shock, he felt he could have done worse. At least it was main
line work - heavy St. Pancras expresses with compounds and the newer '5X' 3
cylinder jobs. The most he'd got at Rose Grove was a slog over the Pennines with
a coal-hungry 'sea pig' or the occasional wakes special to Blackpool.
He'd met his future wife on the platform at Leicester - she was trying to get
back home to Derby, and as Ezra was going back 'on the cushions' after a twelve
hour stint on the shovel, they shared a compartment. A month later, they
'geet wed'. After the war ended a vacancy came up at Accrington. It
was near home, and Iris had grown to like East Lancashire on their trips up
there to see his parents. So they both agreed on the move, and Ezra got another
summary command this time more welcome - to report at Accrington for duty.
By 1960 the shed changed over completely to diesel. At a time when some steam
sheds were closing, everyone saw it as a good sign. Ezra was no sentimentalist
about steam and he took to the new diesels. Then the branches which the diesels
worked started falling under the Beeching Axe. The Bacup branch went, then the
Baxenden line, the Padiham loop, Skipton. There was less and less work for
Accrington's diesel fleet, and soon the rumours started to fly. The shed's worst
fears were soon confirmed. Newton Heath, the big Manchester shed, was to take
over maintenance and stabling of all the diesel units. Accrington would close
and redundant staff would be accommodated at Rose Grove and Lower Darwen.
For Ezra it was back to Rose Grove, and on some days at least, back to steam.
Four years later steam was drawing its last breath on BR and Rose Grove was the
final depot to close. August 1968 saw the curtain fall and even Ezra felt a
twinge of regret. For a while the drivers and guards signed on at the station
but everyone knew "The Grove" was finished. The yards - once the busiest in the
Lancashire - gradually grew quieter. The night turn pilot was knocked off. Some
of the sidings were lifted. By 1972 the lot went, and Ezra found himself, with
the remaining ex-Rose Grove men - travelling each day to Blackburn.
By this time, Lower Darwen, the old steam depot at Blackburn, had closed as
well. The 'Darreners' signed on at the station and it was here the Rose Grovers
went. In the face of common adversity - redundancy -the forced marriage of the
two old rival sheds actually worked. No-one liked the extra travel from Burnley,
Nelson and Colne but at least the company laid; on a staff train during the
night for the displaced men; and they got travelling time.
The move to Blackburn gave Ezra and the other 'Grove men' the chance to learn
the Carlisle road. Not the easy way over Shap, but the Long Drag from Settle.
Ten miles of hard unrelenting climbing up to the wilds of Blea Moor. Even the
diesels sometime found it too much.
After my first trip with him, the next one over that road was to be the last -
for both of us. I was moving on to a different grade, and Ezra was retiring. We
signed on at 6am - a beautiful early Autumn morning. Our train was witing - 1000
tons of rock salt for Scottish factories. The run through the Ribble Valley was
a delight, with Pendle Hill watching our progress as the Class 40 loco got stuck
into the sharp climb from Chatburn to Rimington. We were in 'witch' country now,
and Ezra had a few entertaining stories of witches and 'boggarts' - (Lancashire
ghosts). After Hellifield the country becomes more rugged as the line bites into
the limestone hills. This is the start of the Long Drag. Upper Ribblesdale is
not the place to go for fine weather in October - but today it was gorgeous. As
we settled down to a steady 20 mph I pulled the camera out of my guard's bag and
took a few shots of Whernside, Penyghent and Wild Boar Fell. I also managed to
get a couple of sly shots of Ezra - much to his consternation!
We got relief at Carlisle by a Scottish crew - 'Caley men’ to Ezra, (though the
Caledonian Railway went out in 1923!). That day we were 'home passenger' via
Preston. I filled the brew can up in the mess room and came out just as our
train pulled in. Settling down with a huge pot of tea Ezra was in a reflective
mood as the electric whisked us up the Eden Valley. I was going on to new things
- his working life was coming to an end. "Aw tell thi aw'll bi glad to be out o'
this lot. Railroad as aw knew it's finished. Aw've bin pissed abeawt from pillar
to post these forty year. Management today couldn't run a bloody chip shop -
neer mind a railroad. Like that daft bugger of a trainee. Tha cornt run this lot
wi a university degree - it teks skill and experience - years of it. Leek a lot
o' the' guards today - can't even use 't' pole (shunting pole for coupling
wagons) - but aw blame this management. Tha can't tek a man off the street and
turn him into a guard just like that. In th'owd days they served their time as
porter and shunter. But not today. Oh no! Bloody railways - aw hope aw never
sets eyes on a train agen when aw finish.'"
Ezra's intentions were to get down to writing a book on his home town of Nelson
- about the Luddites and Chartists - the handloom weavers and the early factory
masters. He'd also do that decorating he'd been promising Iris.
We signed off at Blackburn and Ezra, slightly embarrassed, took my hand. "Good
luck cock" - and he was away over the track to get his train home. The next time
I saw him was at Preston. I was returning from the north, and as we drew in I
caught sight of Ezra across the platforms. A driver was revving up a diesel unit
trying unsuccessfully to create vacuum pressure to release the brakes I suppose.
Ezra was eyeing him with a look of disdain. The roar of the engines made it
impossible to shout over to him and the next minute my train pulled out -
leaving Ezra stood there, for once minus overcoat. The fag was still in the
corner of his mouth.
Two months later, I received a letter postmarked "Burnley". It was from Mrs
Dear Mr. Salveson,
I am sorry to bother you, but I am writing about my late husband, Ezra. You may
have heard he passed away last month after a sudden heart attack. I remember him
telling me you took some pictures of him on the railway and I would be very
grateful if you could send me some copies for which I will of course pay you.
Ezra never let me take any pictures of him and it would be a little something to
remember him by.
Yours faithfully Iris Makant (mrs)
A Letter From Mrs. Makant is an account of a real life incident. Paul
Salveson is an ex-railwayman and a keen photographer.
THE FEDERATION OF WORKER
For some of us the Federation AGM held this April at Nottingham University was a
chance to renew old friendships and continue discussions that have been going on
for years: for others, put off maybe in previous years by the thought of
anything so formal as an AGM, it was a new experience. The business in fact took
up only a fraction of the two days, the rest being given over to workshops,
bookselling, and socialising. The aim of these seven pages is to give an account
of a few of the workshops and the ideas produced by them which should form part
of the agenda for the Federation over the coming year, but mainly to concentrate
upon some of the writing that was performed and read out, and hopefully explain
why 120 hard-up people should take the trouble of converging on Nottingham and
leave determined to be back in twelve months time.
Things were set in motion on Friday evening with a performance by Controlled
Attack, the East End theatre/satire/poetry/comedy group. (Eyes right for a
couple of things they performed). Saturday morning was bookstalls on which were
displayed around a hundred worker writer titles, and writers workshops providing
an opportunity to get to know each other and our work. The weather being kind
for once, many of us were able to sit outside on the grass, lulling ourselves
into a false sense of relaxation before an afternoon given over to discussion
Apart from workshops reported elsewhere, there were ones on performance in which
people pooled their experiences (good and awful), discussing the best way to
make the words leap off the page to seize the audience by the throat; on working
class history; and on poetry as an expression of working class life.
For many of us the highpoint of the weekend was the social on Saturday night.
During the mammoth three hour reading all those phrases about the richness and
variety of working class writing with which we are familiar suddenly rang even
truer, with poems, stories and sketches from all over the country.
Sunday morning saw hangovers and another round of workshops including ones on
VOICES and on gay writers within the Federation, the latter obviously making
some people unhappy. (Perhaps further discussion in the pages of VOICES is
called for.) And so to the final session designed to draw different threads
together and then to the long road home......
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
Hold that steering wheel
in brown gloves
who no side loves
From your jeep
what do you see?
A thousand shades
Just doing your job
on a dangerous ride
In the name of God
shot by both sides
Caught in the middle
patrolling the peace
(checking the mirror
But that's not true
be honest and admit
That deep inside
there's a tiny little bit
That's bitter and festers
and grows and hates
That weights the accelerator
releases the brakes
That unsheaths speed
hard and true
You're running at
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
for a smoother ride
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
no need to hide
Motives and emotions
let them push up from the core'
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
Up on the pavement
the pretence is gone
Red on the windscreen
Smiles on your faces
bodies on the tar
Skittle of a nation
bullet of a car
out of breath
It's "Can't keep running
got to stop."
They're under your wheels
you're out on top
when you're fuelled with hate
it steers your course
Let them feel security force
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
nothing left to hide
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
for an honest ride
With power and pain
steered by your hand
You're the only honest soldier
in the whole fucking land
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
it's getting late
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
the rest can wait
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
heading for home
DRIVING OVER PADDIES
to polish up the chrome
The jeep gets parked
emotions get sorted
Still, next year we're taking
our car abroad....
Wendy Richmond ((Heeley)
you can tell them from a long way off
the battered vans
milk bottle gardens
out of date posters
and you can hear them when they begin to speak
as their nice smiles pat you on the head
you can see the books on the shelves
the latest rave
of the latest ism
and you can tell them by the serious look
which overcasts the face
taling about their lives
the importance of
the reason for
you should and must and could
you can see the guilt surrounding them
needing to escape
degrees and mortgages
and so many responsibilities
and the worry about doing it all the right way
but space and time don't always allow
you can tell them by the groups they join
of houses shared
children, money, lovers, and bread
light a cigarette
you can tell them from a long way off___
The FWWCP asks the Arts Council to urge the Home Secretary to pay greater
attention to the increasing attacks on bookshops. There can be no serious
literary and political culture if bookshops are subject to harassment from
racists and neo-fascists. Since the promotion of culture is the main objective
of ACGB, these attacks must be of direct concern to it, and it cannot remain
aloof. (From a statement agreed by the AGM)
As small, usually local publishers, Federation members have an uphill battle
selling to a national readership. The workshop on marketing went some way to
defining the problems and coming up with a few solutions. Having discussed the
need 'to project ourselves as having a collective and separate identity rather
than attempting to integrate ourselves into the mainstream of Literature', there
were two main proposals: to coordinate the selling of all our books at meetings
and conferences; and to organise reviews and publicity for all new publications.
This would mean more reviews in VOICES and providing reviews for the press. The
workshop also went into questions of pricing, selling to specific markets such
as schools and libraries, 'product image', and stressed the constant need to
develop personal sales.
In past years at the AGM, we've argued the place of women-only groups in a
working class federation. This year, we came together to tackle the practical
problems of women writers. Whether we came from a mixed group, a women's group
or one of those that turns out mainly female by circumstance, all of us had
experience of a floating membership; a woman will arrive at a group eager to
take part, yet within weeks has drifted away with no explanation. The reasons
for this are fairly obvious. Under pressure from family demands, women don't
have the privacy, time or energy to keep up their writing.
Solutions aren't easy to find. Some of us felt that more links with adult
education would make a more comfortable framework for women, particularly if
writers' workshops could be based at centres where a range of other activities
were already going on. At the same time, we want to keep up the relaxed
atmosphere of most workshops, offering support and chat and the means to
self-confidence without forcing anyone to turn out "homework". Our groups are
about much more than simply getting a few poems on the page.
Ailsa Cox, Commonword
Sue May (Hackney)
An orange sat in the drawer of a desk
at the back
in the dark corner
where it had rolled and hid one day
when the man of the desk
went out to lunch
and threw his sandwiches away.
He forgot about the orange,
which soon made friends
with the paperclips
and the staplegun
and the compliments slips.
Day after day
in the dark
the orange sat tight
waiting to be
rolled by strong hands
and helped off with its skin
so eagerly that it would get ripped
and laugh at the tickling
and squirt in the eye of the beholder;
it sat hoping and wanting
sucked and kissed by a searching tongue,
it was ready
torn into quarters and shared out
between many tongues and teeth
as oranges often are.
It said to itself
'I've got the pip' and laughed
a bit sadly.
It got all lonesome and blue
and looked like someone's tongue
when they're not well.
It thought it was going grey before its time
and its tears would have rolled down like rain
if only someone had squeezed it.
When the owner of the desk
moved to another job
he cleared his drawer out,
hoping to find his long lost
magnetic scrabble set;
his hand closed around the orange,
furry as a balled-up spider dyed white
'look at this Nige' he said,
and threw it away
Beth Edge (Heeley)
This is not the Thirties.
The place is bright as lipstick
And well-groomed as the girl
In the swivel chair.
She dizzies round, just for the hell
But, always in control,
Ends firmly facing her typewriter.
Her fingers fit the keys precisely.
A staccato of neat white cards
Announces what's on offer.
I sidle over, neutrally.
There's nothing there!
Does the Job Library
House fact or fiction?
"Have you registered?"
The question takes me by surprise,
But she is keen to help
So I approach the desk.
She opens a drawer
In the filing-cabinet.
It slides out strong and smoothly.
I half expect to see
A label tied around a cold big toe,
But there are only cards
Now I'm in there.
At last I have a place.
That's me - a card in a drawer
Marked O to Z.
She shuts it with a satisfying click.
BURDEN ON THE STATE
Peter Carroll (Nottingham)
I was a member
I must confess
a high ranking officer
in the DHSS
but I was only obeying orders
we knew nothing of the distress
just rules and regulations of the DHSS.
What can just one man do
we were trying to make it a success,
it was just a clerical job like any other
with responsibilities yes
but it was all just names and figures
you get accustomed to it I guess
Of course we knew of some poor people
whose lives were in a mess
existing hand to mouth
constantly under stress,
pitiful some cases
I suppose they did impress,
but the rule was if you could
you had to give them less.
It wasn't real life you see
more a game of chess
I was going to expose it all
and tell my story to the press
but we were only obeying orders
at the DHSS
Why do they call me Rudolf Hess?
Since the AGM, Nottingham Writers' Workshop has applied to join the
Federation. Their book, From Egypt Road to Cairo Street, is due out
Worker writers have always been interested in more than the printed word. We
organise poetry readings. A number of us have written and performed plays and
sketches. Basement writers have just put out a cassette of Gladys McGee's poems.
In Nottingham a group of us discussed the use of video. Our starting point was
the experience some people had had using video with young children and with
teenagers. The workshop then developed some of these ideas and we talked about
using video to rehearse our public performances, and also the possibility of
groups making their own videos and thus reaching a wider audience. (Parts of the
AGM were being filmed. We look forward to being able to review the video!)
F. Lydon (Tottenham)
I went to school,
Not because I wanted to,
I had to go,
Law of the land,
That's what I was always being told,
Rules were to be stuck to,
They were for your own good,
To help you become a better person,
Teachers were for teaching,
And students were to study,
I felt lonely and I wanted to leave,
But the rules wouldn't let me,
But when I did leave school
I felt lonelier and I wanted, to return.
PAPER BAG RAG
John Alien (THAP)
It was raining that day as I stood at the gates
of the hospital, smoking a fag.
My old man you see had just passed on
and they gave me this old paper bag.
He didn't leave me much you know
a quid or two, a tin of shag
A pair of his socks, an old silver watch
wrapped up in this old paper bag
Now I thought to myself, as I stood in the rain
that old man never did brag he'd had a hard life, now it's all
come to this wrapped up in an old paper bag
It makes a bloke think, when all's said and done
that life can be such a drag,
you can pick it all up and throw it away
wrapped up in an old paper bag.
WHERE IS THE SUN
Sally Flood (Basement)
Damp, clammy hands -
touch each corner of my mind.
Fill my eyes –
and make it hard to find.
The treasure that I seek
is hidden by the bleak
sheets of pouring rain.
I chase the dust, that I can see,
Fill the sink with soapy suds -
and last night's greasy plates.
Brush the skirting, and the stairs,
and feel the damp air mocking me.
Strip the bed, sweep the floor,
- dinner time is here once more.
Back to soapsuds and the plates
- dreamily thinking of my mates
back at work,
my winter break!
THE FEDERATION AND THE FUTURE
The Federation's success is often expressed in terms of our growth from 8
member groups six years ago to the present thirty. This year we took the
opportunity to take a more careful look. Members of different groups explained
what the Federation meant for them. Some people pointed to practical things such
as promoting book sales and overcoming the isolation felt by individual groups,
while others saw the political importance of the Federation 'as the only
organisation that truly represents working class writers and demonstrates daily
the potential of working people.'
Arising out of the discussion was the feeling that while the Federation had come
to life during the weekend, we needed to do more throughout the year to involve
the membership. We wanted to see more events such as those organised by groups
in the South West enabling writers to meet either on a regional basis or
according to a common interest (eg working class history, women's writing). We
needed to involve more people in producing and writing for VOICES. And finally
we agreed to set up a fund produced by donating copies of our books to the
Federation, to pay members of one group to travel to readings organised by
THE NEW EXECUTIVE
Eddie Barrett (Chairperson) (Scotland Road)
Ken Worpole (Treasurer) (Hackney)
Ian Bild (Secretary) (Bristol Broadsides)
Ailsa Cox (Assistant Sec.) (Commonword)
Jackie Abendstern (Commonword)
Sally Flood (Basement)
Alf Ironmonger (Commonword)
Jimmy McGovern (Scotland Road)
Rebecca O'Rourke (Centreprise)
Petrona White (Bristol Broadsides)
LASTING IMPRESSIONS NOTTINGHAM '82
Marion Shaw (Commonword)
The dining room - large and airy. Long tables, full of food. Eating massive
breakfasts, fried egg and bacon, sausage and mushrooms. Silver jugs, the smell
of coffee. Ailsa's little boy, Tom. A baby girl.
The bar - adjoining the dining room. Cosy, but closed too early. The discussions
and workshops. The intensity but also the sincerity of the people. The talk
about "Voices" magazine.
The discussion on how workshops function - surprised to find some had no
premises, some sometimes had no written work, so discussed articles in the
paper. Other groups had to have written something before they were allowed to
join in with the group. One group had kept going for six months with just two
people. Whether to advertise or not.
The readings on Saturday night. All the different dialects. The chirpy Liverpool
girl, telling her story of a baby born in hospital ("Put that baby down").
The older woman reading her amusing story of Noah's wife finding a leak.
Joan, reading in her soft Welsh voice.
The A.G.M. The woman Chairman (or Chairwoman) trying to keep the meeting moving
on. The voting for delegates. The horse that didn't win.
A crooked spire at Chesterfield.
A van rushing through the Derbyshire countryside crammed with boxes and books,
twelve people and two babies. Speeding home.
Now the mugger on the street
For the sake of fifty pound
Will go before the beak
Most likely to go down
For the press is very savage
On crimes of that there kind
But do their headlines rant and rave
About robberies like mine
O no, not me,
I'm Freddy, fat Freddy
And the sun shines out my arse.
Now the little clerk who sweats
A lifetime at the till
With amounts of cash he never gets
And knows he never will
When his hands grow sticky
And he decides to take a chance
You can bet your life real quickie
He'll be doing that jailhouse dance
But me, not me
I'm Freddy, fat Freddy
And the sun shines out my arse.
Now if you are one to disagree
The world's a crazy affair
Then explain, my friend,
How a man can be
A bankrupt millionaire
For I owe a good few ackers
I ripped them off good style
But they cheered me
as I kicked them in the nackers
I must have an honest smile
That's me alright, that's me
Honest fat Freddy
And the sun shines out my arse.
Now the lesson to be learnt
If you take advice from me
The crime's not being bent
It's a matter of quantity
Steal a pound or two when poor
You'll pay the usual price
But two or three million more
That's private enterprise
I'm Freddy, fat Freddy
And the sun shines out my arse.
Tom McLennan is a member of Liverpool 3 Writers
I never did like rugby much,
Since that first desperate scrum
On the playing-fields of long ago.
Too much type-casting for me,
Too much of a premium on beef;
All that boys-together stuff
In the bath after the game,
The ritual pints of beer,
Those pathetic insecure
Woman-hating songs they roar
Like dirty-minded little boys.
I never did like rugby much
And today, when they ignore
The world for the sake of a game,
I like it even less.
Geddes Thomson teaches English in a Glasgow comprehensive
JUST MY SIZE
He was digging a deep hole
but stopped to look at me
and jokingly to myself
I wondered where the body was
I don't like the way he keeps
looking at me.
John Walsh comes from Runcorn.
A FLORIDA FERNERY
A cloud of dust billowed up around
the van as they came to a stop in front of a cluster of dilapidated white
clapboard houses. The three women looked around uncertainly, watching as a man
emerged from a large hothouse crammed with the glowing green growth of thousands
of ferns and approached, shouting back instructions over his shoulder to a
blonde, beefy-faced man dressed in blue denim overalls, from which his grossly
overindulged stomach threatened to escape.
Blue eyes darting enquiry from his weather-beaten face, he asked if he could
help them. They said that they had called in response to an advertisement for
workers the day before and the man they had spoken to had told them to come
right on down.
He nodded agreement.
"Yeah, we've got work," he said. "You can start right away if you
want...Where're you staying now..you need a place to live in while you're
The three women looked at each other enquiringly, then, "What kind of a place do
you have and for how much?" Maria asked non-committally.
The man launched into a monologue about a caravan just big enough for the three
of them, that he had just set up - only a couple of days before in face -
unless, that is, they wanted something bigger? His eyes questioned them.
"How much?" Amy persisted.
"Twenty-five for the smaller one...that includes water and electricity, but you
pay for the gas. If you want the bigger one it'll be a hundred and fifteen..."
His voiced trailed off as they shook their heads.
"It's a gas stove?" asked Rose.
"Yeah, that's right, honey. Well you wanna take a look at it girls?"
The women looked at each other, eyebrows raised in query. What did they have to
lose anyway? Right now they were in need of a job and a place to stay and, in
these parts, that seemed to be an elusive combination.
"Ah'll show you where it is," he said, "ah'm headed that way myself... ah'll
just ride along with you girls up there, if ah may."
Smiling as he spoke, he proceeded to climb into the passenger seat, where
Graycloud, their puppy, immediately clambered into his lap to his evident
discomfort, bracing herself against him as the van bounced over the ruts and
back onto the road.
They sped along the narrow road lined with ferneries and orange groves, he
struggling to restrain the dog as she lunged for the open window, ears flapping
in his eyes and saliva blowing back into his face from the breeze and, while he
cringed from the sharp digging of her nails into the fleshy part of his thigh,
he regaled them with excepts from his life story and tales of how he had
travelled the long road from his former executive position in a world-renowned
construction company in New Jersey to his present post as manager of a fernery,
which he had taken up on his retirement to Florida five years before.
"And ah'd rather take this job here, outside in the fresh air in the midst of
nature, than that other one, any time," he concluded as they pulled up in front
of another group of rundown wooden shacks where two paunchy white men were
loading ferns onto a pick-up truck.
Nodding a greeting to the two men, he turned back to the women. "See that house
there?" He pointed to a large building, originally white but with the paint now
peeling off in long strips. "That's one of the workers' houses - a whole bunch
of them young men sleep right in there." He walked on around the side of the
building, round to the back, where the shadowy forms of workers could be
discerned in the dim gloom of the fernery, stooped over the rows of green
"And this here's the caravan that you'd be livin in."
He opened the door with a key and showed them inside - a pile of dirty dishes
sat in the grimy sink, a charred pot with the remains of an unappetising-looking
meal rested on the grease-bespattered top of the stove and a musty smell
permeated the air.
"Yeah, this is the caravan for three people. Twenty five dollars this one is.
Yer see - here's the
other bed, just folds down like this," he struggled to lower it, fumbling with
the catch and finally succeeding, "and then you can fold it up so that it's out
of yer way during the day. An1 that's the other bed..." he pointed to a skinny
sofa and the three women, who could barely find room to stand all at the same
time in the miniscule interior, nodded their recognition.
"And here's the refrigerator." Cockroaches and ants scurried for shelter,
abandoning the pile of dirt and mould in the bottom of it as he opened the door,
letting in the bright rays of sunlight. He shut it again hurriedly. "Of course,
it'll need a bit of a clean-up - one of the workers been living in here for a
Edging past them he opened another door. "And this is the bathroom -yer see it
has its own shower," he said. A strong smell of urine wafted out into the room
as he hastily closed the door.
"And this is the clothes-press," he brushed past Maria who quickly sidled into
the space that he had just vacated, staring into the narrow cupboard that now
He looked at them expectantly, his tour of the caravan now completed, but their
faces betrayed no emotion so he quickly ushered them outside, pointing out the
other, larger caravan
a bare six feet away. "Would you like to see this other one," he asked,
ever-helpful, already stepping gingerly up the crumbling wooden stairs, to
unlock the door without waiting to hear their reply. "This here's for a family,"
he stated as he walked into the trailer, pointing out a large room with a
partially made double bed. "They don't care about having a big kitchen," he
continued, indicating the small room with its grimy walls and dirt-lined sink.
"They just want plenty of room to sleep - they got big families them Mexicans
(that's what we got mostly working here) -they bring along their sons and
daughters - in - law - they don't mind all living together like that. Their
families stick together, not like us Americans —— not that I've got anything
against that," he added hastily, "I think family's real important myself."
He led them back outside, chattering on about all the improvements he intended
to make on the two caravans, engaging Maria in conversation about the gas, which
could be filled up as soon as they moved in and they would just pay for it out
of their wages at the end of the week. Rose and Amy wandered off in the
direction of the stooping bodies in the fernery, leaving Maria to nod agreeably
as he rambled on about the gas and rent, which they also did not need to worry
about right now, since it could quite easily be taken out of their wages at the
end of the week, too. Amy looked at Rose, one eyebrow raised sardonically - it
seemed quite likely that after everything had been taken out they'd be lucky to
be making any money at all!
As they moved into the shade of the fernery he caught up with them again, Maria
making strange faces behind his back at the others. Spanish/ Mexican music
blasted forth from a small transistor radio propped up against a post supporting
the plastic roof which shaded the ferns, casting a cool shadow over the
luxuriant foliage and the clusters of workers stooped over, hard at work.
"Yeah, we work from around eight in the morning till five or six at night," he
said, walking up the rows, past a couple of boys who looked up in curiosity at
the new arrivals, towards a short man with a massive stomach and magnificent
"This here's one of our best workers - he sometimes makes as much as $30 or $40
in one day." Rose, doing rapid calculations, came to the quick conclusion that
if their best worker was only making $30 a day, with his experience, they would
be doing well to make $10, which, after they'd paid for the caravan and the gas
for cooking, would not leave them a great deal in their paycheck at the end of
"How much are you paying here," asked Maria, voicing the very question that all
three of them had on the tip of their tongue.
The man hesitated for a second, then: "Well, I'm not rightly sure -you
see, we pay the foreman and then out of the money he gets he pays the
workers..." His voice tailed off uncertainly.
"Ah think he pays thirteen or fourteen cents a bunch," he said, adding hastily,
"but I'm not absolutely sure about that - we'll go and talk to him in a while
and then you can ask him for yourself - I don't want to be giving you the wrong
figure, now..." He smiled warmly at them in a fatherly manner.
"And how many ferns are there in a bunch" asked Amy curiously.
"Oh, there's about twenty-five," he said. "Here, why don't you watch old Manuel
there and see how it's done - it's really not difficult and if you're good you
can make a lot of money."
He turned to the stocky Mexican, who had been watching the group closely,
obvious admiration flashing in his liquid-brown eyes at the sight of the three
"Eh, boy, show the ladies here how you cut fern."
The Mexican looked at him blankly.
"Cut... cut fern - you know." The man made a gesture of cutting with his two
forefingers , but it seemed to Rose, at least, that the Mexican was being
He gestured again, his voice rising, as though by his louder tone he would
compel the man to understand him.
"CUT,CUT...you know...yeah, CUT." He breathed a sigh of relief, as,
comprehension dawning in the Mexican's eyes, he stepped across into the next row
and bending over, seemingly undisturbed by the bulk of his vast stomach, deftly
clipped away at the ferns until the requisite number was reached and then, with
a dramatic flourish, wrapped them around with one of the elastic bands
encircling his left wrist and presented them to the man, pride gleaming in his
"All right - thank you...yeah, very good," the man clapped him on the shoulder,
then turned back to the women and walked away without a backward glance,
chatting on all the time.
"Yeah he's a good worker that one - I'd have showed you myself, except I don't
know how to do it. Well I do - that is, I know how to tell someone else to do
it, but I've never actually done it myself. That's the way it's been all my life
- always telling other people what to do and how to do it, but never doing it
myself. Ah worked for one of the biggest contractors in the world - I was an
engineer you know. My job was to tell people how to build bridges and buildings
- ah could read the plans and then tell them how to do it... but I never did it
mahself. Except ah could've done it though, if ah'd had to - but I never
did...Yeah, funny ain't it - always telling other people what to do..." He shook
his head in ironic amusement at the absurd ways of the world.
They walked back out of the fernery past the groups of dark-skinned Mexicans,
who had suspended their work, entranced by the sight of these newcomers,
muttering in low tones amongst themselves, the young men smiling and joking with
long sideways glances at the three women. One young boy, who stood frankly
admiring them called out to attract the attention of the boss, revelling in the
glory of the four sets of gringo eyes directed towards him, "Eh, buddy...'ow
you?" and the man, returning his greeting, "Hey there, boy...how're you doin1
today", turned to the women, smiling with pleasure and proudly said, "You see
that? They always call me buddy.... they like me you know."
They walked back to the van, the women making frowning faces behind the man's
back - it seemed as though they had inadvertently stumbled across a haven for
illegal immigrants (or was it, rather, a hell) and much as they pitied the
plight of these people who had no choice but to work for a pittance in such
conditions, saving what little money was left after their rent and sundry other
items had been removed from their wages, to send back to their families in
Mexico, they were fortunate enough to be able to refuse such exploitation and
would now gladly have gone on their way but the man would not let them go
without first introducing them to his foreman, a very able young man, so he
assured them, who went by the laughable name of Letchio.
They climbed into the van, the man once again wrestling with Grey Cloud in the
passenger seat and now for no apparent reason opening his heart to them.
"We used to have blacks working here, yer know, but we got rid of them all." The
women studied him intently, expecting him to elaborate further, but all he would
say was: "Them Mexicans is better."
And then, perhaps in relation to the previous statement, although that was not
at all clear, he continued: "We don't want any of them radicals here...soon as
we see one of 'em, we let 'em go - they just go upsetting decent people...making
trouble. Yeah, we don't need any of them radicals here."
Then, dropping the subject as abruptly as he had taken it up, he began
reminiscing about his past life and how it had led up to his present fresh-air
"Ah swear," he said, "this fresh air makes me feel years younger...probably
don't make me look younger, though," his wrinkled leathery face broke into a
deprecatory smile, causing his skin to crease up like a crumpled brown paper
bag. "Ah'm sixty-five," he said, "and if ah look older, that's because ah've
squeezed five lifetimes into the space of one," he winked slyly at Maria.
"Ah've been with the owner of this fernery, a young guy, for four years now.
When we first started together he was one of the smallest ferneries in the area
- now he's one of the biggest. With my help, ah reckon to make him a millionaire
within ten years. He's mayor of this town, yer know and he's still only a young
man. Yeah, together we're goin' to make him a wealthy man...not for mahself you
understand.. .it's his future ah'm thinking of..." his voiced trailed off as he
gestured to Amy to pull off to the right in front of another white clapboard
house, where he climbed out, walked over to the front door and knocked. A couple
of minutes later a young man emerged, tousle-headed, rubbing his eyes and
buttoning up his shirt. The man led him over to the waiting truck.
"This is Letchio, our foreman," he said.
The young man stood silently, as though somewhat dazed by the sight of the three
women, blinking in the harsh sunlight. He was dressed in immaculate white jeans
and shirt, a startling contrast to the sand-begrimed clothes of his working
compatriots - a leather belt with a heavy brass cow's skull for a buckle
encircled his waist. He rubbed his eyes, pink blotches standing out against the
pallid skin of his face.
"He's just woken up," explained the man, jocularly, "all right for some, eh?"
The young man grinned sheepishly. "Not like me," the man continued relentlessly,
"up at six every morning and never know when ah'm going to be home at night."
"Well, Letchio, these here girls are interested in working and they wanna know
what you're paying...ah told them that ah wasn't sure, cos you was the foreman
and you paid the workers."
Letchio's mouth opened slightly and they all strained to hear the words issuing
from his mouth.
"You gonna stay long time here?"
"Well, we were just looking around right now, you know, checking out various
places..." Maria explained hurriedly.
"Where you stay?"
"Oh, we thought we'd put 'em up in the caravan for three - or they could stay in
that house up the road with that guy - what's 'is name...him and his wife, you
know," explained the man.
Letchio looked doubtful and reflected at length.
"I tink is better if you stay in caravan," he continued finally.
The man turned to them.
"Yeah, ah guess you'd be more comfortable on your own - have your own bathroom..
.not have to share with other people."
They nodded their agreement.
A little girl, dressed in a short blue dress, rubber nipple protruding from her
mouth, trotted up and latched onto Letchio's leg, claiming his attention for
herself. He lifted her up into his arms.
"So what did you say you were paying then Letchio?" the man enquired again
"Er, fourteen cents a bunch," he replied, after some hesitation.
"Yeah, that's what ah thought, girls...yer see, ah don't like to take it on
myself...might tell you the wrong thing, but that's what ah thought," he added
"Well, girls, what do you say."
The three women looked at each other, desperately searching for an easy way out
of the trap they could see closing relentlessly around them.
"Er, well, we're kind of hungry right now, so, er, I think we're gonna go have
some lunch and maybe we'll be back later," Maria blurted out in one quick
exhalation of breath and to their collective relief the man seemed quite
satisfied with the non-committal reply.
"OK, girls, well, if you want to start work, you know the deal now, so you can
start anytime you want. Just come and see Letchio here and he'll put you right
to work. You'll like it here ah know...good clean air." And his face crinkled up
as he waved them good-bye.
Bleu Harrison lives in London. A Florida Fernery is the product of time spent
in 1980 travelling through the Southern States of America.
1983: A Trade Union Annual LATC
PO Box 71
Preston PR1 1DU ,£1.OO
We have our experience explained and interpreted for us daily by the media. We
are encouraged to believe our lives are insignificant and dull beside those of
the Royal Family, pop stars, the characters in Dallas, the women and men in the
advertisements. When we are presented with working class life it is usually
shown as either comic or pitiful. The best of the stories and poems in this
collection of writing by trade unionists and unemployed workers challenge this
received view of how things are. The attempt to romanticise and sentimentalise
working class life is recorded in Joe Smythe's 'Orwell's Woman' and satirised by
Ken Clay in the character in 'Culture Shock' who idealises the 'creative delight
of simple craftsmen' and ends up getting a rather nasty shock at the hands of
one particular 'simple' craftsman. Even the student handing out revolutionary
leaflets outside the dole office in Mike Rowe's 'Black Holes in the Universe'
seems patronising. "Mind you, it might be different if they started giving out
machine guns," says one of the men inside.
The fact that these stories and poems are firmly rooted in lived working class
experience means that they inevitably clash with the "official" version of
reality. In her poem "No Rickets in Rotherham,' Ruth Shaw tells us of a
"Community Health' man who says, "There are no rickets in Rotherham, no evidence
whatsoever of any illness caused by unemployment.." Ruth's answer to this
example of wilful bureaucratic ignorance is simple and direct, "He ought to be
in our house at tea-time:"
And as her poem describes the psychological and emotional pressures brought upon
a family by unemployment, with tempers strained daily to breaking point, she
exposes the fraud which is the official view of reality with its characteristic
lack of imagination. As she says, "There's more than one way of being crippled."
And the two little girls in Monica Walker's story 'Embryo Feminist
Grandmothers.' Like Ruth Shaw, they draw their material from the way people
actually live. In their play they act out the roles of adult women based on
observation of the real thing. Their fantasies involve lovers, unwanted
children, black eyes, torn clothing, drunkenness and ignore the ideal 'Ladybird'
family, conventional morality, feminine stereotypes and biological fact. No
princesses or fairies in their make-believe.
Ernie Benson's story about the thirties doesn't fit the stereotype either. From
the first sentence I half expected a tale of poverty, hunger and oppression.
Instead, I got a stirring and jubilant story about a moment of vigorous working
class resistance. A side of the depression you never see in the media.
There are a number of other high moments in this collection. A moment of
triumphant and joyous solidarity at work. A celebration at the death of a mean
boss. And there is humour in abundance.
There were things I didn't like though. I didn't think the wealthy, homosexual
art-lover in 'Culture Shock' was convincing in the end. He seemed to be a
stereotype. Some of the poetry seemed empty to me, and some of the stories got
bogged down in detail, or just rambled on unnecessarily. One that didn't though
(apart from "Embryo Feminist Grandmothers') was Ed Barrett's story I fought
Norman Snow. It s a story about a Scouse in London in the sixties. At the
beginning of the story, the main character tries to impress the fashion
conscious Londoners by claiming to be related to the Beatles. At the end he has
found a different kind of hero to associate himself with. I enjoyed the story
because it seemed so complete. You feel the character has learned something in
it, and he takes you with him. You feel you have understood what he's learnt.
Some of the shorter prose sections were very moving too - particularly the
account in 'Flight and Darkness' of a child's humiliation at seeing his father
being harassed by the police.
There is plenty to build on here in later Trade Union Annuals. Different styles
and approaches, voices that deserve to be heard, and need to be heard, but there
is still a lot to come. The main limitation of this collection is alluded to by
Rick Gwilt in the introductory essay, when he admits a preponderance of white,
male English authors. Women do feature in this collection, although to a lesser
extent than the men, but where are the Irish, the Welsh, the West Indian, the
Asian voices? We have some of the finest storytellers and poets in the world,
here in the North of England. Future annuals will have a lot to draw on, and I
look forward to reading them.
Heeley Writers' Workshop
WRITE ABOUT IT
S. Wales Creative Writing
Academi Cymreig £1.50
It's time that the people of Wales should have contributed a substantial body of
work to the literature of the worker writer movement. After all, and
particularly in the '30s, Welsh worker writers have been major contributors to
our historical tradition.
The workshops, which were run at the rate of two a week for six weeks, got under
way in September 1981. They were located in Neath, Splott, Pontypridd,
Pontypool, Blackwood and the Rhondda. So, it could be said that they are roughly
representative - given the strictures of time, and the ways in which they were
structured and led - of the people of South Wales. Organised as a seeding
project under the auspices of Academi Gymreig, it involved the agencies of the
WEA, the extra mural departments of the universities of Swansea and Cardiff, the
South East Wales Arts Association, with the bulk of sponsorship coming from the
good old ghost of Calouste Gulbenkian.
Like most of the anthologies our movement throws up, the quality of work varied,
but consistently throughout the work of the various workshops the reader comes
across some very fine and strong working class literature. However, some
criticism can be levelled at both the initial movers of the project and also at
a number of the convenors. The former lacked a coherent cultural or political
strategy from the outset (insofar as it could be gleamed from the Foreword).
Getting people writing is just not good enough. Neither is the statement that
the workshops were "aimed directly at the unemployed" and also "catering for
people of all ages and in all walks of life". The worker writer movement is not
about social work and psychotherapy - although as a side effect both of these
are not undesirable - it is primarily concerned with a socialist working class
literature as an integral part of an overall creative working class culture. The
latter should draw the line at the unemployed ex-military with ingrained
reactionary prejudices and the out-of-work SDP/Tory engineer. They will feel
more at home in Writers'
Circles which are well "catered" for. In these hard times, mincing words for the
sake of temporary funding for a temporary project is patronising for the real
people suffering culturally and economically, as well as being self-defeating in
terms of the project. Too many middle class jerks are using the amorphous area
of community arts and culture, whilst exploiting the working class people
involved, for the purpose of furthering their careers and keeping themselves in
Like the aborigine in the Sundown story from the Splott (Cardiff workshop) who
is about to be either dispossessed or killed for his plutonium-enrich-ed land by
an already rich white settler - "You are not his people, so he does not hear
you." Working class people and their real allies will and are finding their own
literature as this book, in the main, vividly demonstrated. The interlopers are
not needed, and should be told so.
Mike Kearney, Newcastle-upon Tyne.
SPARRING FOR LUCK
Stephen Hicks THAP £1.70
If it appears that I view this book favourably, I suppose it can reasonably be
suspected that I am biased. People who know me well and even those that know me
not so well, are aware that I am interested in boxing history and especially the
history of the twenties and thirties. This book has a difference, however; it is
about a boxer poet.
Boxer poets are unusual but not unique. There was even one boxer who was to
become a very successful songwriter. I refer to Michael Carr, who you may never
have heard of, although I would be surprised if you haven't heard one of his hit
songs, "South of the Border".
As a boxer, "Johnny" Hicks was never a champion. As a poet, I should imagine
that he would never have challenged for the title of Poet Laureate.
Nevertheless, what shines through in his efforts towards his main pursuits, so
well set down in his book, is a great heart and a wealth of feeling.
Those who consider a piece of writing to be worthy if it measures up to their
own definition of 'literary merit', may miss the worth of Johnny Hicks' poetry.
His feelings glow, where his technique may not be up to the standards set by a
literary establishment but even they, I believe, would find something to admire
in his poem on the plight of the pensioners entitled "Song". His courage, as he
faced up to his imminent death, along with his sense of humour, is summed up in
his version of "Bye Bye Blackbird".
This book will be informative, as well as a source of entertainment, to those
who are interested in the old time boxing scene in this country but not only to
those. Anyone concerned in examples of working class writing, poetry, as well as
prose, will find "Sparring for Luck" a worthy addition to their library. There
is also much to attract the attention of students of social history. Hicks'
account of his father's death at the age of 44, leaving behind a widow with ten
children was not an unusual story in the "good old days" of 1912. Life
expectancy for the working class man was not very high and the life of a working
class woman would hardly be considered a bed of roses, more a crown of thorns.
The hardships suffered by Hicks' mother and her devotion to the cause of caring
for her large family was obviously very well appreciated by him and his devotion
to her is readily apparent in his story of his life. But even her efforts were
blighted by the event that blighted so many millions of lives, the Great War.
Her two eldest sons were taken into the army, forcing Johnny's mother to put him
into care. By the time she was able to take him out of the children's home, her
eldest son had been killed on active service in France. Johnny's mother received
a five shilling a week pension in recognition of her eldest son's sacrifice.
Yes, I am biased in favour of this book; I admire the courage of the central
characters, their honesty and their perseverance. Host of all, I think I like
Johnny Hicks, or would have done if I had been lucky enough to meet him.
Although, through this book, I feel that I have.
p.s. I think that everyone connected with the Tower Hamlets Arts Project and the
members of Basement Writers are to be commended for making sure that Johnny
Hicks' story lives.
Reading through this collection I was struck by the unevenness of the work.
There are good poems alongside the mediocre.
Peter Kearney's themes are fairly predictable. He is a poet who obviously loves
his native city and its characters and he wants us to share this love with him.
There has been, in recent years, a renewed awareness of the richness of the
Glasgow vernacular, and a few writers are now working in this manner and Peter
is such a writer. He uses the language to good effect in such works as 'THE
WIND' and 'GOODBYE EDDIE'. The latter poem won the first prize in the Scotting
Open Poetry Competition of 1975. It has tremendous sadness and warmth as Peter
remembers his old friend, warts and all.
There are a few pieces written in standard English ' BEN VIEW', 'MOMENT’ and
'ACOSTA' but I, for one, get the impression that the poet is not entirely
comfortable in this genre. He is far better when writing of Glasgow and in the
colloquial and in this context he creates the best lines in the book. The poem
is 'JOHN MACLEAN’.
LABOUR, TRADE UNIONS,
CO-OP AN 'AW,
LIKE HUMPTY DUMPTY
THEY'VE HUD A GREAT FAW.
MAYBE THEY'RE WORRIT 1
TOO MUCH ABOOT LAW
THEY SEEM TAE LACK
THE VISION YOU AY SAW.
The uneveness that I mentioned in the opening sentence is evident in 'THE WEE
SPARRA’ and 'FUR WAHNT AE A POUN’ which are fairly lumpen and especially so in
the former which incidentally describes a man having a 'pee'. Bowel movements
are mentioned in quite a few of his pieces. His other overriding theme is
socialism. (Labour movement?).
He includes a piece of writing on the great socialist teacher and revolutionary,
John Maclean, which will be of interest to younger readers to acquaint them with
the real British sense of fair play.
This leads me to what I think is the weakness of this collection. It has, for
me, a dated feel. There is no mention of the media or the misuse of science
(nuclear weapons, lasers, silicon chips etc.) and surprisingly for a politically
aware writer, no reference to the 4 million on the dole.
Are those omissions on the part of the poet or the compilers of the book?
The cover is a horrendous mustard coloured photograph of one of the city's
better streets with a tame bunch of pedestrians walking towards the viewer. I
hope this will not put potential readers off as this is a collection that should
be read. Read them -ALOUD to get maximum enjoyment.
NATURAL RESOURCES .
NATURAL RESOURCES is the first anthology by the present members of the
Commonplace Workshop writers group. Yet I find that some of the poems especially
are not really working class material. They seem in a separate world and it's a
pity that some of the ideas are not .expressed in a more realistic way. I'm sure
that in the poem 'On seeing you after all these years' there are other
comparisons in our modern everyday that can be made to illustrate women
supporting each other instead of using 'like the witches in Macbeth we stirred
together our cauldron'. Neither did I like the phrase 'family of man' in the
poem 'Laugh and Be Happy'. This poem and 'Travellers Lament' stick in my throat
because they are so sweet. The poems on Fertility and Baby are effective in
describing the 'hows' of the way women are supposed to behave, and I really
appreciate the natural touch in the poem 'Baby' that ends the piece of the
awakening relationship between mother and child 'A young mammal with its
It seems to me that a very professional attitude is taken in the short story
'The Client' towards a harassed woman, who has come for help. The writer puts on
'a slight professional smile.' There is quite a lot of concentration on what
would appear to be negotiations with a solicitor rather than on trying to listen
to the distressed woman.
The prose 'Suicide and other panics' is very illuminating in the way it
describes the writer's life as an adolescent living in New York during the
1950's. The style is swift as the writer relates her fears, traumas and her
awareness of her own sexuality. There is the political awareness between the
haves and have nots, and the conflicts between the country and liberation in
Cuba. The humour in the story is dry but effective.
In the story 'The Interview', alienation and the hard, cold metal of attitudes
towards coloured people is well expressed. Although the main characters are
placed in the stereotyped roles it's the attitude of the whole procedure of
having to be dragged through a traumatic and degrading interview that highlights
the position of coloured people. Having expected so much from the inspiring
title, I was left a bit disappointed with the contents.
Pure Running - a life story, by Louise Shore. Hackney Reading Centre at
Centreprise. £1.50. Told with the aid of transcripts and tape recorders, this is
the story of one woman's struggle for work, a home, and self-respect. Louise was
born in Jamaica. Reading the book feels like talking to her personally - pure
running, like the title says. It's the result of six years work between, Louise
and her collaborators, and well worth the patience they've all shown.
As good as we make it - Centre-prise young writers. £1.80. Young or old, you
should be gripped by these poems and stories by writers between the ages of
fourteen and twenty-five. Many of the writers are black; and the girls get their
say, loud and clear. Strong, contemporary writing - some nice photos too, from
the Centreprise Young Photographers' Group.
It don't go to your boots -Tower Hamlets Writers' Group. 85p. Rooted firmly in
the world we all know, of bus journeys, tatty cafes and shopping at Tesco's,
this anthology contains work from a range of East End writers. There's plenty of
humour, and some of the work is very touching - but you won't find a drop of
Moonlight and Roses - Basement Writers. 90p. More from the East End - this time
from Stepney. Like "it don't go to your boots", its strength comes largely from
autobiographical writing, both in prose and verse form.
Writing Hatters - Tottenham and Wood Green Writers' Group. 25p. Less posh than
the others, this is a duplicated anthology of mainly humorous work.
Jericho - Pat Arrowsmith. Heretic Books. £3.95. Re-issue of a novel written
while the author, now a member of London Voices, was in Holloway prison. It's an
account of a peace camp in the fifties. While the writing lacks polish, the
subject is a strong one for today's readership.