Friday, 10 February 2012

THINGS FALL APART



I’ve nicked this posts title from Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, his book is about the destruction of a community in the late nineteen hundreds under the impact of colonialism. The hero is a good man who increasingly finds himself out of step with the changing world. Published in 1958, Things fall Apart, is regarded as the classic modern African novel written in English. It’s worth reading, as are all Achebe’s other books.

Here’s a link to Fela Kuti playing his 1975 hit He Miss Road, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yI6ZZsCElTo this always reminds me of Okonkwo the hero of Things Fall Apart. Fela sings “If you miss your road, I beg you don’t come my way”, a reference to the continual persecution he experienced from the military dictatorship. It could be the prayer of Okonkwo.

Achebe himself took his title from a poem by William Bulter Yeats: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html. Part of the poem paraphrases Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound http://www.bartleby.com/139/shel116.html. I often get that Russian Doll effect when I start to examine poetic influences.

What, you might ask, has this to do with the photograph of some old ship on its side, looking an almost wreck? Well everything really. Last Saturday, while in London, I visited my friend’s studio, he’s a talented artist and a skilled etcher. As I drove into the car park, I saw the sad profile of a ship on the other side of the flood wall. Something chimed within me about this wreck, but it was not until later when I was looking at it close up that I realised I recognised the ship. I had travelled on it many times when I was a child and I had heard the song inspired by the ferry journey many times.

It was The Royal Iris, a name that means nothing to you if you did not grow up near Liverpool. As a child I would be taken by my parents for a day out to New Brighton, which was across the river from Liverpool, on the ferry, this very ship. The Royal Iris is slightly older than me being launched in 1951on the Clyde and became a cultural icon in the north west, apart from being the ferry in the hit pop song by Gerry and The Pacemakers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loyRYFUYg9g. The Beatles, The Searchers and later on Elvis Costello all performed on it.

It has been moored, if such a term can be used to describe the forlorn state it has been reduced to, near Woolwich since 2002. The proposed plan to turn it into a nightclub seemingly put on hold since then and the poor old ship has become more and more derelict with every year. Have you ever encountered something from your past in unexpected surroundings?

Here are a couple of older poems, the first describes the times when the Royal Iris sailed the River Mersey.

CONFORMITY IN A NORTHERN TOWN

There were only two haircuts

In the land of my boyhood,

Two styles, this or that,

Short back and sides or a crew cut.

It sort of summed Widnes up,

The slow walk to the barbers

On the last day of the school holidays.

The choice was no choice.

In 1963 some enterprising clipper

Chalked up Bealte Cuts 2/6.

We queued in the main street,

All wanting this new norm,

To back vicariously in Beatlehood.

Walking back home with our Barry,

In my brown nylon anorak,

I thought I was dead cool.

Today 2/6 would be twelve pence. I was reading recently in White Heat, A history of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, by Dominic Sandbrook, that the decision to move the UK from pounds, shillings and pence (dear old LSD, as it was called) to a decimal currency was taken by just two people Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister and the Chancellor James Callahan. It seems strange that such a momentous decision can be made by just two people without asking the rest of the population for their opinion. My father, a lifelong Labour Party activist met Harold Wilson once, sometime in the 1960’s when he visited the Widnes Labour Club, he was not impressed, he thought Wilson was just going through the motions, and wasn't interested in being there.

Here’s one inspired by my youngest daughter when she was about five, she wandered up to me carrying this huge photo album waiting to know about the people in it.

For Lottie

My daughter brings her photo album,

It houses the dead within its pages.

“Tell me who these people are.”

We view our family at different ages.

An out of focus Aunty Eileen,

Always so clear in life.

“Here is one of you-just born,”

And one of my dear dead wife.

These people will age no more,

Forever they will remain,

And captured ourselves in turn

Will always be the same.

This last poem is about my days as a fitter, that means an engineer, and was when I worked in a huge chemical plant in Runcorn. The part I worked on made chlorine, caustic and hydrogen by “splitting” brine (salt water). Splitting is a local term for electrolysis, essential you run an electric current through salt water and chemical reactions take place that produce said chemicals. In those days chlorine was used to produce CFC’s – a chemical that was used in refrigeration systems and caused the hole in the ozone layer. It has since been outlawed, thankfully.

In the summer my work mates or as we said muckers, would sneak off the job and sunbathe on the roof of the big building we worked in. Mercury was used in the process and our mercury levels were monitored every two weeks, if the level of mercury in our bodies began to rise then you where taken out of the factory and given jobs outside until it was lower. If you wore the mask though it never rose as the mask filtered the mercury vapour out.

It was a farcical time, the companies tame scientists would argue that just because a hole had been discovered in the ozone layer now did not mean it had not been there for years. I do not know how such people slept at night. I left the company.

K-UNIT MAINTENANCE, CASTER-KELNER WORKS. SUMMER 1979

No one ever noticed the roof.

With its hidden castellation:

Touched by the sea blue corrugated sides.

Each rectangular trough, a silent, secret pool.

Sidestepping further tasks,

Fitters in summer hid here.

Beached, white, flabby flesh

Basking between blue walls and sky.

Curious, I only went up once,

The gravelled felt moved softly underfoot,

Gulls over head.

We used mercury to split brine,

Rendering chlorine and caustic.

My workmates distained the masks provided

To filter the mercury vapour from the air we breathed,

Courting high mercury levels in their blood,

To work outside in the summer and tan.

Removed from the process,

They lay on scaffolding boards to bake,

As quicksilver seeped from their bodies.

The chlorine we made killed the ozone.

Supine in our apathy until summer changed forever.

This poem came quite quickly, I wrote it in the middle 1990’s and still perform it. Do you have any similar stories of people taking the short term option?










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