Some Grubby Northern Town

Ok, something a bit different this week – but first just a tiny bit of background. Weirdly and randomly, what follows is a poem I found while rooting around a load of old books in my parent’s loft over Christmas. It was handwritten on a piece of paper folded in half and tucked between the pages of an old Great Expectations hardback. Judging by how frail and yellow the paper, I doubt it had seen the light of day since… well, since I don’t even know when. Maybe not even during my dad’s lifetime; I asked him about it and he didn’t remember seeing it before. The Dickens book he knew about, but it was just one book out of many he inherited from his parents. He couldn’t think of a time he ever opened it, and, as so often happens, it simply wound up in a box in the loft, out of sight and out of mind.

We tried a little family sleuthing, but it left us none the wiser. As far as we know, our ancestors rarely strayed further north than East Anglia… If ever there was a distant female relative who raised three children in a ‘grubby northern town,’ she must have kept it rather quiet!

In any case, who ever did write this little poem decided not to sign it. Or, for that matter, give it a title. All the same, though, I like it, and the mystery of it too… Even better, I like that I can post it here – not for that big of an audience, I must admit, but maybe, just maybe, for the only one it’s ever had…


Oh, the working week’s never done nor my children ever fed,
Every morning starts with a new sense of dread.
Up at six my husband gets, his factory bell at seven,
No matter, though (the chaplain says), there’s rest for us in heaven.

We’ve space enough for two but are recently a five,
It scarcely holds the rain off but keeps us all alive.
Paying for our meagre home, our money’s always spent,
The factory owner owns it, and he collects the rent.

Damn the pace of change in this grubby northern town,
Young I wore the future lightly, now I only wear a frown.
(And all my pretty things are tattered too, and covered up in dust,
There’s nothing much to decorate when everything you do, you do because you must.)
Our labour is our value, the factory owner says, and that’s the way it is,
It’s just the price of doing business that what we make is his.

At least we’re together, us family and our neighbours,
What would I be without their graces and their favours?
A rack of bones, I guess, and even closer to my death,
Still scrubbing, though, and cleaning, up until my final breath.

I want to be a mother who knows how to laugh,
Even when five stinkin’ bodies have to share a tiny bath.
But it’s no joke, our failing health and always making do,
My boy can’t throw a ball up without it coming down with something too.

Damn the pace of change in this grubby northern town,
I remember once my dreams were buoyant, now I watch the same ones drown.
(Gone, as well, our skies of blue, they’re thick full of smoke,
Fresh the air of childhood, now bereft of it we choke.)
We’re on the map, the factory owner says, and famous for our steel,
It’s just the price of doing business that everyone is ill.

I try to think of better things in the sanctuary of my head,
But hardships always have a way of being there instead.
My husband means well and tries to lift my mood,
But he’s got a belly full of aches when he needs a belly full of food.

If only for a day, we wish we couldn’t see,
The factory owner’s mansion that surely cost a tidy fee.
Or the fine food that’s sent to him, by way our little road,
Fancy stuff from distant lands, hand delivered by the load.

Damn the pace of change in this grubby northern town,
The land was our birthright, now another has the crown.
(All across our ancient fields of lavender and hay,
He paved over commerce with its building blocks of grey.)
There’s beauty in those chimney stacks, the factory owner says, they’re puffing out tomorrow,
It’s just the price of doing business that they’re also full of sorrow.

Us working lot, I know, should rally and complain,
Yet that would be the end of us, goes the familiar refrain.
The factory wouldn’t stand for it, there’d be nothing left to rail,
We’d lose what’s left of what we have and rot in debtor’s jail.

Worse still if that did happen, unbearable the thought,
We’d guarantee our children’s lives could only come to nought.
And kill our fondest fancy allowing us to cope,
Something better for our young: our one remaining hope.

Damn the pace of change in this grubby northern town,
Its fortunes are up, but it’s dragged its people down.
(On the wheels of progress we apparently must turn,
Would that fusing metals may adequately burn.)
Profit’s our utility, the factory owner says, it’s what we’re working for,
It’s just the price of doing business that most of us are poor.

About newjonnytransit

Same as ever, only better.
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2 Responses to Some Grubby Northern Town

  1. Rob C says:

    Nice poem. I am intrigued as well! Who on earth wrote this perhaps? Surely Dad would have heard/known about a relative or someone close to the family who lived up North.

    Well, it sure sounds like a truly depressingly shit existence. Lots of hard work for not much reward.

    Unless of course, you happened to be the factory owner. Which sounds like fun!

    PS. nice work on the photo shop btw.

  2. Yeah, definitely a mystery… especially given all the family-tree work dad has completed. You’d think he’d have some idea, at least. Who knows?

    I’m nonplussed by your ‘P.S.’ by the way. I’m really not the kind of person to invent something under false pretenses.

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