The Tuesday Poem: Above Middleton


From this hill the view is larger than God,
the weather less forgiving.

Rough land, honed by a battering wind
that thrums over the houses
and howls inside the head like a chained dog.

This is the cold that cracks stone,
breaks open keens on calloused fingers
for the few descendants of the long-forgotten dead

who moled the lead seams under the Pennines,
leaving their poisoned bones
in unmarked graves.

Their cottages are fallen stone
and the roofless church
has a congregation of nettles.

They lived, not without language
or music, or the violence
of loving and birthing and hunger.

Only a death brought them down,
ill-suited in their mildewed best
to walk twelve miles to church -

buried, christened, married in job lots.
Crossing their brief marks against the register
of unrecorded lives.

Even their work is hidden
in pipes, drains, the linings of coffins,
or beaten flat in the gutters

of redundant churches, divers’ boots,
the hems of old velvet curtains, fishermen’s weights,
the deadly interior of a nuclear flask.

Kathleen Jones

Up on the moors near where I live are many abandoned lead mines and the ruined dwellings of the people who once worked there. Neil's great-grandparents were among them and we went to visit the ruined house they'd once occupied. We spent a lot of time among the archives of the county record office, finding out about the people who'd lived there, tracing his family history and uncovering the story of an unbelievably bleak way of life.
Most of them were illiterate, and their lives are often 'lost' in official histories because they were too poor to have gravestones and unable to leave any written record. Even the mining company didn't record their names - only the jobs they did. The work was backbreaking. On winter days they went underground in darkness and when they emerged it was dark and the men could go for months seeing the sun only once a week on Sunday. The women worked the smallholdings - growing what food could be persuaded to grow in such a bleak landscape - tending goats and sheep. The community had a reputation for drink and lawlessness and there was a lot of illegitimacy! One of Neil's ancestors died after becoming lost in the snow on a winter's day. Most of the others died young, often from lead poisoning. Even the food they grew was tainted with the ground water from the mines.
The poem is an attempt to capture the atmosphere.

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  1. What a harsh existence they lived and a harsh landscape.
    Well reflected in the poem.
    How fascinating are the stories we find in our histories.

  2. I think your poem caught that atmosphere very well. It does seem unfair that a community gets a reputation for drink and lawlessness when there were so few other distractions for people that lived in such harsh times.

  3. Kathleen, this poem is very powerful. The lines that got me: 'poisoned bones', 'ill-suited in their mildewed best' and the simple phrase 'they lived...' It made me think afresh of how much we demand from our warm, safe, well-funded lives, and how lucky we are. I do think the 'deadly' in the final line isn't needed. 'Deadly' is the echo through the whole poem and implied in the final line which packs a punch anyway and needs restraint. I love the way this line brings the poem marvellously into the present - a warning - reminding us not to be complacent or look away. There are other communities like this one in the world, poisoned by the work they do, the environment they live in. Great stuff, Kathleen. Now if I've got a minute before the day gets underway, I will try and read a page or two of your book....

  4. I really loved this and the way the ordinary turned extroadinary by the meaning you bring with you every step of the way.

  5. Kathleen

    A powerful poem - the atmosphere, the way of life, the mildewed suits for special occasions.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I will certainly re-think the 'deadly' Mary. I'm glad that the harshness of their existence came over in the poem. When you see where people lived and how it makes our modern lives seem rather soft!


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