Live From Worktown: Bolton's poetry festival anthology
Write Out Loud’s roots are in the north-west; it actually started in Bolton. And this anthology, put together to coincide with the town’s first international poetry festival, Live From Worktown, earlier this summer, is packed with evocative work from poets in the north-west.
The title of the anthology comes from Mass Observation’s ‘Worktown’ project, undertaken in the 1930s as a study of everyday life in a northern town. A dominant theme is a certain amount of nostalgia for the industry of the past; the idea of Bolton as “the land that time forgot”, as in Jeff Dawson’s ‘Cotton Town’. John Mather harks back to “hasty footsteps pounding past our terrace / Many iron-shod / Who needs an alarm?” in ‘Darley Street’. Pete Slater continues in the same vein in the amusing ‘Olden days’: “Life was diluted, the air was polluted, and mornings were wrapped in fog.”
Geraldine Green remembers with admiration the “gods of fire” at work, “visors covering / faces, anonymous men focused / on blazing sparks, shaping hot metal / into parts for submarines to cool / in Arctic waters”. Eric Tomlinson yearns for football’s good old days, before flashy foreign imports, in ‘Footy’s Gone Crazy’: “Forty thousand and maybe more / A wet old day, mud splattered ball / With local lads giving their all.” And for tea afterwards? Steven Waling recalls “ fish fingers and chips or hot-pot” in ‘Blue Skies over Wythenshawe.’
Amongst all this harkening back, the Whitmanesque ‘Savage root, lifeline to the heart’, by US poet George Wallace, appears almost as an aberration, if the reader is not aware of the connection between Walt Whitman and Bolton. At the end of the 19th century a group of Bolton friends saw Whitman as their inspiration, a prophet of socialism and a force for good, and visited him in America. In return George Wallace, who is writer in residence at the Walt Whitman birthplace, came over to read at the Worktown festival in Bolton this year.
Along with industrialism in the anthology is the more modern theme of multiculturalism. Anjum Malik’s poetry is published both in English and in other languages, and, indeed, in another script.
Sian S Rathore, in ‘Coming over here’, writes about her mother meeting her father at the Burnley Ritzy: “You, 19 years and in a fishtrail glitter dress, were transient / and exotic, untouchable, he told you, and dark, / unlike him.” But the marriage doesn’t last: “I wonder if / Sometimes he wishes he could’ve bleached you / the way you once wished that you could be / bleached / the way his genes bleached yours to make me.”
Rachel McGladdery’s view is more outward-looking in ‘Google Translate, Dorota and me’: “In translation there’s plenty of us to say, / a lull is never an issue with Google translate ... / crisps are krupke like in West Side Story / this makes me smile all day."
Tony Kinsella sees the Antony Gormley figures, ‘On Crosby Beach’, as foreigners, and often figures of fun: “Gormlessly in human form … / Scarecrows caked in seagull shit … / Clothed in cast-offs and Evertonian replicas … / Apart from and a part of a landscape in decline.”
But I’d like to conclude by quoting the more uplifting ‘Pram’, by Chris Buchanan, which could serve as template for those who would look beyond the scars of the past, towards a brighter horizon: “A bakery, takeaway, charity shop, … / I’m showing you the park today. / For now just look up at the sky … / Don’t notice my dirty old nails”.
There is no indication about the editors of this anthology, so I can only guess that festival directors Scott Devon and Dave Morgan were involved in it in some way. The quality is remarkable, considering the speed with which it must have been put together, to chime with the Worktown festival. All credit to those poets of the north-west who rallied to the cause, and provided work of grit, humour, bluntness, and truth.