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Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.
The ghost of William Shakespeare to a pupil who accidentally conjures him whilst frantically writing an essay at 3 o’clock in the morning:
“Don’t wrap me up in the chains
of your poxy writing frames
or pick at my remains with your
or prod at my pentameters
or filter out my metaphors
without first knowing how they make you FEEL.
And don’t drain my soliloquies
with clinical analysis
or paraphrase some essayist
like some amateur ventriloquist,
just get thee to a library
and find something to LOVE.
The chances are the ghost of me
is in those pages too,
and, for now,
so get gone
(I’ll be waiting for you).”
[Picture by Chris Beatrice, from the cover of Read Magazine, http://www.theispot.com/whatsnew/2010/12/chris-beatrice-inspired-by-shakespeare.htm]
A poem about ancestry and the distances between us, inspired by Tony Walsh
I never really thought about my own Irish ancestry, growing up in Manchester. You didn’t really have to. It was everywhere; from the surnames in the register at school to the voices in the pubs I worked in whilst at college, I never thought of it as separate in anyway from the bricks and mortar of the city; it was a natural part of Manchester. Your name is something you see on the front of exercise books in your own hand, something written endless times but rarely studied. I didn’t recognise it as Irish until much later.
My granddad on my Dad’s side was a distant figure, and it was only when he died that my Dad really talked about him and about his family background. His story is patchy, shadowy, reserved for the hazy end of nights in the pub, before the lights come on and you’re asked to leave. A kind of half-remembered song. Mt granddad was a soldier, saw action in WW2 and was never quite the same. His own father and his Irish grandfather belong to the smoky, cobbled streets of Manchester and Salford in the blackened mill towns of yesterday. Originally from Cork (we think), my great grandfather (or is it great-great grandfather?) came across to England to work on the Manchester Ship Canal, like so many others. And that’s about as much as I know. As a kid, I asked my dad but he was always sketchy, he talked about that generation of men in vague terms, as a kind of mythical race. He sketched a brief outline for me of tough men, digging canals, building roads and constructing the city.
I had the privilege a year or two ago of hearing poet Tony Walsh read his brilliant poem ‘Silver Ribbons’ at the People’s History Museum. What struck me about the piece, a touching account of the lives of ‘the navigators’, the men who dug the Manchester Ship Canal, was that he didn’t present them as this army of uniform men; he gave them individual voices, brought them to life. He talks of individuals, of “Kennedy, a muck-shifter, the strongest in the land,” before stinging us with lines such as “we all put in a shilling on the day he lost his hand.” He carves out this montage of men, it’s like flicking through a photograph album, briefly lighting these faces from the dark pages of history, a bittersweet account of “husbands, fathers, brothers,” and “broken men sent home again.”
The poem struck a chord with me, and I wanted to write something, but felt unqualified – unlike Tony, my own Irish ancestry is further back, lost. So, I decided to write something about that, about the distance generated when the second generation becomes third and fourth and the voices of ancestry become buried. I dedicate this poem to Tony Walsh and all those descended from ‘the navigators.’ There’s a recording of Tony’s poem, ‘Silver Ribbons’ online here. And if you haven’t experienced Tony Walsh‘s poetry, go see him.
Fourth Generation Verbs
The verb he used that afternoon in History,
after English, was ‘settled’.
It sat in my mouth in the past tense
all the way home, like soil.
Settled. Like sediment, in rivers
swollen by storms.
I conjured up faces of the grandparents
of grandparents I barely knew
and when I got home and asked you,
you talked of them vaguely
with rough handed verb phrases,
dug out, asphalted, built.
I knelt in the yard, felt the moss between the paving flags,
scratched at the dirt, at thin tufts of grass.
They wouldn’t have been here
to this new estate, built when I was small
on imported sand, on stony fields,
no bones in this topsoil.
At night, I dream of reaching down,
down beneath the flags,
stretching through worms
to the roots of dead trees, long overturned,
where maybe once they rested,
by rivers, fished, held hands,
I first came across Walter Greenwood’s ‘Love On The Dole’ when I was in my late teens. My granddad recommended it to me, during a conversation one rainy Saturday afternoon in the pub about my beloved Smiths. I spouted my adolescent critical analysis of the entire Morrissey back-catalogue whilst he politely pretended to listen, picking the non-winners for the 3.30 at Cheltenham. He’d never heard of them, of course. But when I started dropping references to Morrissey’s influences, to Shelagh Delaney and Alan Sillitoe (as if I’d actually read them), he looked up from his paper and recommended Greenwood. My granddad wasn’t much of a reader, but he’d read Greenwood’s novel after watching the film, when it was released in the early 1940s. It strikes me now that when he read the novel, he’d have been about the age I was when we had that conversation.
My granddad was brought up in Newcastle, during the Depression. A novel, not only set in the ‘hungry thirties’, but written during it, and serving as a lasting reminder of the harrowing effects of poverty, must have struck a chord with him. Here was a novel that reflected the gaslit world he had escaped into the Army from. Though the novel is set far from Newcastle, in the gaunt underworld of 1930s Hanky Park, Salford, poverty is universal. No wonder the novel was hugely successful, Hanky Park could be Liverpool, or as easily the East End.He must have seen something of his hometown in the dark, austere streets of the novel. I never got a chance to ask him.
For me, the novel was a million miles away. My 1997 Manchester was all neon lights, Oasis and the false new dawn of Tony Blair. It was a time of optimism; the city had dusted itself off from the 1996 IRA bombing and had drawn up a plan for renewal. The Tories were a thing of the past, terrifying tales to tell your own grandchildren when the time came. So, when I picked up the novel myself (I’d borrowed it from the library – probably alongside some New Order CDs and Bez’s Biography), it didn’t resonate immediately. A few pages in and I stalled.
Now, parts of the opening are all too familiar.
On either side of (the street) are other streets, mazes, jungles, of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness…
I returned to Love On The Dole only recently, years after my granddad died. This time, it was different, I was hooked. I regret not being able to share it with him. And it’s as relevant now, in post-Blair austerity Britain, as it ever was.
We can recognise in characters such as the grim Mr Pryce, the local pawnshop tyrant, and his tributary Mrs Nattle, the vultures of poverty that circle our own high streets, the payday loan companies and exchange stores that serve as sad reminders that poverty still has its unscrupulous profiteers, now more than ever. Just as our own bookies and casinos squat on the high street, booming as we grasp at straws to rescue ourselves from austerity misery, the character Sam Grundy, Greenwood’s sleazy bookmaker, appears to be one of the only characters to prosper as the others flounder in unemployment and crippling cuts to welfare. Even the thuggish Ned Narkey, almost pitiful in his ironic lack of power and influence, is irked by Grundy’s ill-gotten wealth:
Instantly he appreciated Grundy’s prosperity, its easy source, the smug complacency of the man, his affluence, influence and ability to indulge his every whim. Comparing it with his own barren indigence made his poverty doubly maddening. Blind hate and envy dominated him; his impulse was to snatch at Grundy’s throat, fling him to the floor and kick his brains out…
Greenwood shows us not only the outwardly obvious consequences of poverty: the ragged clothes, the drawn faces, the dirt and grime, poignantly illustrated in Jack Lindsay, the former apprentice, “a dismal, depressing young fellow shuffling about with a slouching gait in broken boots and shabby suit,” who, ghost-like, progresses no further than the street corner he despondently frequents; but also the deep psychological damage that poverty wields, particularly on men and on masculine identity. Ahead of his time, Greenwood alerts us to the identity-crisis men faced, and would face even moreso towards the end of the century, as the masculine industries of coal and steel crumbled, as the foundries and pits closed, leaving a void, filled only with self-doubt and self-loathing:
It got you slowly, with the slippered stealth of an unsuspected, malignant disease. You fell into the habit of slouching, of putting your hands into your pockets and keeping them there; of glancing at people, furtively, ashamed of your secret, until you fancied that everybody eyed you with suspicion. You knew that your shabbiness betrayed you; it was apparent for all to see. You prayed for the winter evenings and the kindly darkness. Darkness, poverty’s cloak.
For Harry, the novel’s hapless hero, this frustration and despair is exacerbated of course by his relationship with Helen, his childhood sweetheart. We see him fall from the hubristic apprentice with a spring in his step to the unemployed man; we share in his panic, as he is suddenly propelled into the world of fatherhood, of responsibility, of the grinding poverty his parents are powerless to keep him from:
He was severed from the old way of life at home, now. Mother, father and sister were as strangers […] He would soon be a father himself! The thought made him scared, guiltily scared. He marvelled at Helen’s seeming composure. She did not seem at all disturbed now that they were married. He, a father though! He a silly, incompetent boy, dressed in the ill-fitting clothes of manhood.
But it’s the women of the novel, I think, that shine through. From Dorbell, Nattle and Jike, hovering around like the three witches of Macbeth, interspersing the narrative with whiskey-breathed commentaries, to my favourite, stout Mrs Bull, the hard-faced ‘uncertified midwife and layer out of the dead’. In Bull, Greenwood provides the blueprint for the fearless Northern matriarch, the Elsie Tanners and Ena Sharples of the world. In my favourite scene, Bull rebuffs the futile requests of the local ‘Good Samaritan’ clothing company rep, seeking the weekly instalment in vain:
She sat at her kitchen table, jug and glass in hand: ‘Call next week, lad. Ah broke teetotal last night,’ with assurance: ‘Ah’ll have it for y’ when y’ call agen. Mrs Cranford’s expectin’ o’ Tuesday, an’ owld Jack Tuttle won’t last week out. Eigh, igh, ho, hum! Poooor owld Jack,’ a guzzle at the glass.
Brilliantly, when the collector sulkily concedes defeat, lamenting that Bull will land him in trouble, she replies “Aach, trouble, eh? Tha’ll thrive on it when tha gets as owld as me.” This is more than comic relief that Bull lends the novel, it’s hope; it’s the grit that defies the spectre of poverty.
Arguably, it’s the women of the novel who remain the strongest, the most defiant. Whether through the shrewd business dealings of Mrs Nattle, the go-between for Pryce’s pawnshop, or Mrs Bulls’s gruff put-downs and blunt sermons (“Ah’ve had no eddication but Ah do know that there ne’er was parson breathed wot preached sermon about resurrection on empty belly, an’ mine’s bin empty many a time.”), or through Sally Hardcastle’s final sacrifice made to keep her family afloat, it’s the women who find an inner steel when things fall apart. “Gor blimey,” says Mrs Bull, “they think we’re magicians, an’ Ah ain’t sure that we ain’t.”
Ultimately, Love On The Dole is a devastating celebration of working-class resolve; on the one hand it laments and warns of the evils of poverty, yet it also reminds us that, despite the Pryces and Wonga.coms of the world, the Cash Generators or Sam Grundys, there is, to crassly paraphrase a Morrissey lyric, a gaslight that never goes out. (ouch)
I loved it. My granddad loved it, though I never got to find out why. So, if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents around and they recommend a book, read it. Even if you’re not ready. Good books will wait.
lands on homes,
roofless bones of brick.
It lands on barbed wire fences,
photographed in yesterday’s news.
falls on the boats
of those whose only chance is to go.
It lands in Greece,
is carried across the Channel
and we turn over the TV,
close the door,
let it melt.
tastes like ghosts,
like ash, like
Manchester, 1987. It’s December, last day of term. We’re in the bathroom. My mother has me in a loving headlock and is brushing my teeth ferociously. I am seven. My older brother sits on the edge of the bath, awaiting the same violent dental cleansing. A smile spreads across his older face. He is itching with a piece of information, something he knows that I don’t, something that I simply, surely, have a right to know…
When you told me Father Christmas didn’t exist,
all three years older, leaning on the bath,
waiting for your teeth to be brushed,
I was secretly glad,
though Mam gave you a crack,
because there in that bathroom,
in my vest and pants, one sock, one shoe,
I grew into something older, new,
and something was removed
like a butterfly stitch
and later that day
when our teacher came and
assembled us all on the stained carpet,
and announced the arrival
of Father Christmas,
red suit too big,
pillowed belly and
cotton wool brows,
someone pulled down his acrylic beard
and revealed Mr Cohen, the head,
and some kids cried,
but I already knew,
realised I was wearing your shoes.
And if I slip beneath
would the sun still
paint the surface,
and would the tide still
out to Lampedusa?
And if my hand loses yours
beneath the waves,
would I ever find you again
on the shores
And will they feel this
in the Rhine,
in the Danube,
in the Seine,
in the Thames?
Sorrow in veins,
as lights come on
in homes reflected in
stars like fires
for the dead,
as fishermen make their way
back along lanes, their
backs against the cold,
far from Lampedusa.