Here he is, late 1960s with his first grandson. My Dad could have been so many things. He’d played trumpet and cornet in the Salvation Army. He sang in the Chapel choir. He was a gifted photographer; he won scholarships to Grammar School and to Art School. There wasn’t the money for him to use either, so he worked in a mill as a woollen-spinner for 50 years. A great walker, a bird-watcher. He loved Jussi Bjorling of all the great tenors. He didn’t talk a lot. Here’s three poems for him on Fathers’ Day.
His hands cross-hatched as a chopping board
from breaking yarn- a million creels.
I think he dreamed moors and opera in the mill.
His nails were horny, blue with old dark blood,
caught by flying shuttles in the humming sleet
of shivering threads. Miming in the din,
the racket of machinery, the deafening beat
of spinning-mules, close air thick with lanolin.
Chapel choir – his tenor voice came reedy-light.
Round and ringing if he thought he was alone
with Jussi Bjorling on the gramophone,
the gathering wave of None shall sleep;
a duet to bring a dreamed La Scala to its feet,
his voice like a moorland wind, and rich as night.
Drawn to Mam Tor, to Kinder Downfall,
Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;
they came by steam train, on the bus,
away from mill and pit and forge,
an England dark with smoke;
they passed by crumbled slums, grand
neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged
parks, until the cities petered out
on the edges of high moors, big skies;
they came to the quiet of neat fields,
of drystone walls. They walked miles,
wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,
flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.
They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;
they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,
would pull aside wired gates,
push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,
would not be kept from bluebell woods.
At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,
those trespassers, who rambled viking fells,
ghylls and cloughs, sour gritstone moors
and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.
They knew the land they walked should not be owned,
wished it was theirs; coveted the cottages
of the small stone villages, their tidy gardens.
Those men like my father the woollen spinner,
namer of birds; presser of wild flowers
According to their cloth
I knew one man made a forced march in a column,
full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;
forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.
One man who fell from a plane
in a night full of parachutes,
the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes
dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;
who taught history, who clung to Communism
like a Tudor martyr to a relic.
Another who drove his jeep into something
that men might make, experimenting
in a slovenly way with making up an idea of hell;
into a camp made out of rust and rot,
of wire and sweet black smoke and rags and sweat;
No one came to liberate him;
no one to take his eyes from the dark,
no-one to bring him back from the dead.
The one I loved most spun yarn
for uniforms and army blankets.
All the same to him. Nobody tried to kill me.
He cut his coat according to his cloth.
Took his suit lengths into Leeds,
to Jewish tailors, emigrés
in small dark shops in narrow streets.
You don’t choose where you are in history.
You cut your coat
and wear it.
[“According to their cloth” published in Much Possessed [smith|doorstop 2016]