Coalshed Poets

David Alton, Poets in Residence, Coalshed Poets

"The poem was largely written on a 2 hour train journey between Wakefield and Newcastle. We, as a group, had been discussing writing a poem for the exhibition opening, but nothing was really working. However, a note pad, good old fashioned pen and paper, did the trick. It occurred to me that we'd been focusing on the actual nationalisation and it was that making it rather pedantic. By concentrating on what led to nationalisation it opened the subject out, giving greater poetic possibilities. Once I started writing it simply flowed."

To the People…

By Dave Alton

Hewer and Drags-man,
Driller, loader, barrow-man and breaker,
Farrier and sparks,
(The only sparks made welcome underground)
Chippy and blacksmith,
Bands-man, timberer,
Banksman, hurrier,
Putter and pick-man…
Fuelers of progress,
Of light,
Of heat,
Of…
The nation and its possibilities.

Danger down there, it’s said, and comradeship,
Told by the very tongues that tasted coal,
That were irrigated by spit-polished
Lozenges of it, that heaved kibbles full
From face to surface.

There’s testimony
Of wives who would turn their faces towards
The headstock and wonder about rock falls
And the striking of rogue sparks and blue flames.
And railwaymen who had to haul away
Truck-loads of the black tonnage from pitheads
On muscular shoulders of their locos.

And the mums and dads who shovelled the slack
And cobs across their modest hearths, or lit
The gas to feed their families, or flicked
The switch to illuminate their lives through
The mystery of electricity.

All knew then of darkness, dust and danger,
Knew there was a cost to convenience,
Knew tall, bleak-black headlines, like tombstones carved
From anthracite, when that cost was blasted
Or buried in debit columns of names.

And the owners knew the price of safety
Would have to be off-set against profit.
A wage rise subtracted from dividends,
Shorter days worked diminished their leisure,
And
That socialist devils make mischief
For idle hands. Far better, then, to press
Colliers to the coalface, their families
Into narrow double-rows, their wages
To a minimum. Production to a
Maximum, or lock the colliery gates.

But,
Those socialist devils make mischief
For working hands, hands that cut the coal
Fuelling
Factories and mills and workshops
And foundries for
Making the munitions,
Weaving battledress, manufacturing
The instruments and rolling out the steel,
For the guns and the bombers, for soldier,
Sailor and airman, for the fitting out
Of naval vessels, tanks and landing craft
That tore the swastika from the flagpoles
Of Europe.

Miners did this, made it all
Happen and then could not return their pits
To the ancient Reich of the coal owners.

“For the people, by the people!” This was
Inscribed in red on to the swelling heart
Of the nation, demanded by the voice
Of the nation and grasped in the clenched fist
Of the nation.
Sweet, oh so very sweet
On tongues of colliers…NATIONALISATION!

For
Hewer and Drags-man,
Driller, loader, barrow-man and breaker,
Farrier and sparks,
Chippy and blacksmith,
Bands-man, timberer,
Banksman, hurrier,
Putter and pick-man…
Fuelers of progress,
Of light,
Of heat,
Of…
The nation and its possibilities.

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