Coal Mining, 1929

The machine man clocked in for his shift and went down
in the rattling lattice cage, swallowed whole.
He took his pride beside his fate to go down:
Down in darkness on a thin September day
below the gear at Woodhall’s Virtuewell;
Down through the narrow stooping ways of dust
chiselled deep beyond pretence and arrogance;
Down into the shafted maze of galleries
and lamps and damp and fearful gas;
Down to face his fall below a breaking prop.

Part of him resurfaced in the ambulance waggon
that shook a broken pelvis (and shoulder, ribs and legs)
along twelve dreary morphined miles towards the mercy
of the grey and gaunt infirmary… where he went down again:
Down to meet the surgeons in their antiseptic halls;
Down to months of care, preparing for the knife
which clinically killed him by infection.
Down, he left a pregnant widow with ten children
to manage in the hungry years;
Down and gone. But unforgotten in our genes.


from the gullet

I stood on the hill where the barges had gone
through the locks or the inclined plane,
draining the guts of the country downhill
to force its carbon promise free

In forsaken tribute from miners and stokers
who gave their lives unequally to fuel
propelling power in blind direction,
while the worth of a man was measured
by craft – and the gift of a bottle forbye…

I stood on the hill where my family had waited
for children to come, in the wake of TB –
and had me, who was glad to escape
and walk away without intent or purpose
at the second opportunity;

When I had fought against my brother
and let my father die,
on a day when smoke hid the sun
like a cloud, I went home.

Our Town

A melancholy crossroads,
Its route and purpose left behind,
When traffic, work and trade
Have moved on too many times,
Except, in part, for coal;

Hard and shabby, post-industrial,
Its changes all rung out,
Old identity long lost, apart
From cynicism’s cold sour spur:
That town which nurtured us
In its resilience, vitality and heart;

Old monks: Gone
Covenanters: Gone
Weavers: Gone
Canal: Gone
Ironworks: Gone
Papermills: Gone
Distillery: Gone
Coalmines: Had gone….

But now the farmstead’s gone
Instead, its centuries of work
And family, a history, erased
In search of coal. A version
Of the search, the seam, the bed,
The tyrant’s rack that killed grandfather

Underground, turned opencast
To devour the fertile land, empty and
Whole, scattered as debris and dust,
Where firedamp was feared, and falls,
All to claim the power beneath it all:
The district’s fame and scourge.