Salmon Pastures

A while back I saw this video of a salmon trying to make it up Aldwarke Weir near Rotherham shortly before going for a run through Salmon Pastures and the little maze of streets in Attercliffe between Staniforth Road and the River Don. It got me thinking about cobbles, scales and the past and present of the area and I wrote a little poem about it.

SALMON PASTURES

Glinting in bright winter sunlight, cobbles
reappear, wet, through cracked tarmac. A
Halal butcher, a strip joint and the
Office of the Diocese huddle against

Workshops whose sounds and smells have filled the air
Since obnailed boots scratched sparks along these lanes
And pithead gears auled ancient istory up
From underfoot to fuel forge fires at Firth’s.

Flexing furiously against the force
Of weir water and centuries of works’
dirt, silver scales shimmer. Soon they will be
at Salmon Pastures, proving that the past

Presses into the present as sure as
The rich cannot enter heaven.

I was well chuffed that Now Then printed it alongside the winning Off the Shelf short story entry, Sarah Peacock’s excellent ‘After the Fire’.

It’s the first time I’ve had a poem published and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. One of the great – and unexpected – results has been people sharing their knowledge and memories of the area. Here are a few examples:

  • indentures stated that ‘little mesters who had their workshops in Salmon Pastures weren’t allowed to feed their apprentices salmon more than three times a week
  • Oh Sheffield and Rotherham used to be aglow, I’d park my little Renault 4 for a few minutes to watch white hot ingots of iron cooling outside a foundry on my way home on a winter’s evening
  • I liked watching the rolling mills, long red hot snakes yards and yards long
  • there was ‘a wee train loaded with hot pig iron crossing the road at Brightside
  • sturgeon were caught in the Don up to the late 1800s and fish passes are now being installed on the weirs to help fish return upriver

Thanks to everyone whose comments I’ve shamelessly pilfered from Facebook! Please do comment below or drop me a line if my poem sparks any memories for you.

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The kind of cobble thing I’m talking about ©David Ash – thanks Dad!

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A salmon trying to make it up Aldwarke weir

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Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast

A couple of years back I wrote a post about Shut Out the Light’s fantastic Still Ragged, a documentary about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In it Dennis Skinner provides a typically passionate and straightforward critique of zero-hours contracts, arguing that they are the modern-day equivalent of the insecure employment that blights the lives of Tressell’s characters.

The filmmakers obviously got on well with Skinner: they’ve spent the last two years making a documentary about his life. And what a life. Skinner was born between the wars into a big mining family in Clay Cross, Derbyshire. His dad had been blacklisted following the General Strike in 1926 and Dennis followed in his footsteps, going into the mines – and the Union – when he left school. Skinner was a gifted scholar with a sharp wit and was quick to master the skills of a pitman and a union rep, going on to get elected as a councillor in 1960 and MP for Bolsover in 1970.

Since then he’s been the scourge of Tories in the House of Commons, stymying bills from Enoch Powell and Anne Widdecombe (on stem cell research and abortion, respectively) and delivering brilliant parliamentary put-downs, earning himself the title The Beast of Bolsover. Examples in recent years include him telling Jeremy Hunt to ‘wipe the smirk off his face’ and suggesting that rather than the economy, the only things growing in the 1970s and 80s were the lines of cocaine in front of George Osborne.

Behind the headline-grabbing one-liners, though, there’s a serious and thoughtful politician and a kind and decent man. Skinner’s socialism was formed through the mining culture he grew up in and 22 years down the pit. He actively supported the 1972 Rent Rebellion in his home town (he had two brothers on the Council) and the 84-85 Strike. As an elected representative he’s fought tirelessly for his constituents, embodying the ideals of hard work and selfless public service that underpin his politics.

Skinner is Labour through and through. He’s proudly on the Left of the Party but he believes in supporting his colleagues from across the Labour spectrum. As a principled left-winger who has consistently spoken out against the dodgy patronage of Parliament, his honesty and integrity are beyond reproach and he has lessons for us all about socialism, solidarity – and singing (as demonstrated in this moving clip about Skinner singing with the elderly in his constituency).

Skinner’s story is an important and timely one. As the Labour Party rediscovers its socialism, Dennis Skinner’s long memory can help its members to understand the rich political tradition they inherit. If you have a few quid to spare, please chip in to help Shut Out the Light finish their film and bring the compelling story of this real-life working-class hero to the big screen.

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The Purging of Spence Broughton, A Highwayman

Why is the robbery of the Sheffield and Rotherham mail over 200 years ago still of interest and significance today?

Rob Hindle’s beautifully presented pamphlet from Sheffield’s own Longbarrow Press narrates fragments of the life and death of Spence Broughton, whose body was gibbeted on Attercliffe Common in 1792 and hung there for 35 years. Broughton’s story is vaguely familiar to many from the area, not least because it was immortalised in the name of a particularly scenic stretch of the Ring Road and on the panelled exterior of the city’s most gruesomely kitsch pub, The Noose & Gibbet, which has a plastic Broughton festooned in a grubby England flag swinging outside…

The sequence opens with the voice of authority, Mr Justice Buller, decreeing that Broughton’s ‘body should be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either’. The following page is a Post Office notice offering ‘a Reward of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS’ for the capture of John Oxley, Broughton’s accomplice. What follows is Hindle’s multi-voiced imagining of Broughton’s story followed by a sequence of Illustrations, short poems that elaborate on the themes of Broughton’s tragic life and set them in the social and historical contexts of the period.

Hindle’s lines are clean and controlled, narrating each episode with an understated sense of unfolding drama. The simple seven-liner that introduces the first and central poetic voice closes with the image of the gibbet, ‘the forged outline of a man’. The second uses rhythm brilliantly to convey Broughton’s agonising final moments. The first quatrain is brutally monosyllabic other than eyes that ‘ogle’, whose strangled feminine ending conveys expiring life. In the second stanza the creaking rope and desperate, dying beats of Broughton’s heart are evoked by the simple description of his head and hands in the last moments before his final, convulsive crisis, when ‘the bones of his feet / make the dance of the Tarantella’.

 

This second poem also introduces another voice, Broughton’s own, which appears in darker, marginal font and functions as a way of complicating the narrative by offering different and at times dissenting perspectives. This technique enables Hindle to present sympathetically Broughton’s descent into a life of ‘dissolution’ and his powerless perplexity at the cruel indifference of the law towards the poor.

Woven into the narrative is a reference to Broughton’s contemporary Joseph Mather (who I’ve written about before and will be returning to this year…), whose ‘Spence Broughton’s Lament’ was composed in response to the letter Broughton sent to his wife asking forgiveness. Mather hawked his songs at mass public events and it’s likely this one was composed in a rush to be sung and sold to the huge crowds – reportedly 40,000 people (more than the entire population of Sheffield at the time, suggesting both exaggeration and attendance from across the whole region) – that gathered for Broughton’s gibbeting. In Hindle’s ‘A Lads’ Wager’, written in excellent dialect (have ‘nayo’ and ‘ayjers’ appeared anywhere else?)  a mischievous ‘Mathers’ feeds a bowl of ‘curdlin’ broth to the rotted corpse. Also included is a poem about the potters who snapped off one of Broughton’s fingers with a stone and worked it into the handle of a cup.

Broughton’s own voice becomes more prominent as the sequence progresses, taking a whole poem of its own to deliver his account of the robbery and quote at length from the victim’s testimony. The Illustrations section expands Hindle’s attempt to give voice to the marginalised: ‘A Great Battle at Waterloo’ is voiced by a soldier ‘sick of wars, sick to death of generals and officers’. They movingly expand upon the themes of poverty, injustice and the brutality of an arrogant British elite, conjuring historical events from a refreshingly bottom-up perspective. It is this retracing of well-trodden paths through modern history in the shoes of the 99% that makes Broughton’s tragic life seem so close and familiar to the contemporary reader.

You can buy Rob Hindle’s The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman here for a fiver.

There’s a video of Rob Hindle and Ray Hearne reading from the sequence here and you can listen to a couple of them on Soundcloud here.

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Interwoven Histories – working-class writing and immigration

Working-class writers have for centuries understood the interwoven histories of their own position within British society and that of colonised people overseas. The radical rhetoric of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drew parallels between the plight of the African slaves who picked cotton in the American South and the children who carded and spun it in the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of the North of England. I’ve just started a piece examining the continuities of this tradition in two post-war writers’ treatments of ethnicity, racism and immigration. Like so many of the issues that I’m interested in, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists provides an early and important twentieth-century example. At the beginning of the novel Owen and his colleagues are sitting on upturned buckets, slurping tea from jam jars during their lunch break. One of the decorators, Easton, is reading the Obscurer, which provokes in him

a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that it was about time we did something to protect ourselves … The papers they read were full of vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country. The enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.*

When he was writing in the early 1910s, Tressell was dismayed by the way in which those in power distracted the people from their own colossal greed and corruption by blaming foreigners. It’s a sad statement on our own times that a century later the right-wing press are up to the same dirty tricks. Another subject of a previous post, Jack Hilton, was disarmingly honest about how he was brainwashed by such racist propaganda, describing how the foundations were laid during his education:

What a fighting chance we were given to understand the happenings of world significance – it was not a dog’s chance. It worked out this way. 1st: Heaps of God; 2nd: England first – the world nowhere; 3rd: Blatant swagger; one good honest Christian blue-eyed English schoolboy equalled twenty infidel Japs …

Having been schooled in the bigotry of British imperialism, Hilton was swept up by the anti-German feeling of the First World War and later flirted with eugenics, a despicable and discredited philosophy not a million miles from Boris Johnson’s. True to the enduring internationalism and anti-racism of the radical working-class tradition (stretching back to Joseph Mather and beyond), Hilton came to see the working-class movement as related to the anti-colonial struggles of his day. Gandhi visited Lancashire whilst Hilton was writing his first book and slept on the sofa of a Labour family in Salford. Renewed interest in the historical theft of common land – linked to the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 – forged a more concrete connection between these twin struggles and in the post-war era working-class writers continued to show a progressive interest in the intersection of class and colonialism.

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Gandhi in Lancashire

Writers whose work was shaped in the post-war era by these interwoven histories include Sheffield’s own Len Doherty, Shelagh Delaney (whose A Taste of Honey, in Colin MacInnes’s memorable phrase, was the first play to portray black and gay characters ‘without a nudge or shudder’), Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow (whose narrator Vic says of a racist character ‘she could hardly open her mouth without showing everybody what a stupid, bigoted, ignorant old cow she is’), Buchi Emecheta, Jeremy Sandford, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the list goes on…

The project I am starting looks at two more whose lives and works traverse British inner cities and former British colonies. In the pages of these writers’ work we find out much more about the changing nature of the working class and the spectrum of working-class responses to immigration than we ever can from the journalists and politicians who blame immigrants for everything from putting too much strain on the NHS (it would collapse without them) to roasting swans.** And indeed more than we can from phenomena like the BBC’s White Season of a few years back, which managed to be racist by labelling all white working-class people racist – a pretty spectacular feat when you think about it. What we find in these books is what many people from diverse neighbourhoods know through their daily lived experience – what Paul Gilroy has described as ‘demotic multiculturalism’ – which is that the working class co-authored multiculturalism alongside immigrants, largely from the colonies. The history of immigration into Britain following the Second World War – and in many areas before the war – is a history of immigration into working-class areas.

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Grave of a Muslim miner killed at Beighton colliery in 1922, Bunrgreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Working-class writers deal with the realities of what this means. They don’t shy away from appalling racism or seek to present a rose-tinted view of things, but nor do they ignore the rich history of tolerance and conviviality that many contemporary commentators ignore and efface. The tradition of internationalism and radical anti-racism in working-class writing constitutes an eloquent historical response to the absurd and offensive notion that the working class is somehow inherently racist or intolerant.

In our own times, as recent work by Beverly Skeggs, Stephen Garner and Owen Jones has shown, there is a worrying trend for journalists, politicians and academics to vilify working-class people in ways that are sinisterly reminiscent of the how ‘racial others’ have been demonised since the beginning of the colonial era. Working-class writers often intuitively understand this and deliberately position themselves alongside the ‘other’. In the opening sonnet of his brilliant collection The School of Eloquence, Tony Harrison connects his exploration of working-class history – and his search for an identity and a voice to express it – by analogy with Aimé Césaire’s founding text of the Négritude movement:

…I call these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,

My growing black enough to fit my boots.

With these lines – and the dedication of the poem to members of the Angolan independence movement Frelimo – Harrison aligns his own project with that of the anti-colonial poets of Africa and the West Indies. It is this interwoven history that I will be exploring in my current project.

*pp. 41-3 – as a member of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, I have copies of this book to give away. If you’d like one, please email me your address and I’ll post one to you.

** ‘SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen’s birds for barbecues’.The Sun has removed the article from its website but Nick Medic’s Making a Meal of a Myth details its complete lack of any factual basis.