Sunday, 1 November 2015
Published in 1984, Mabel Harrison's When Buzzers Blew is now scarcely available except through libraries and online sources such as Amazon, but remains an engaging portrait of West Yorkshire life in the early decades of the 20th Century. I first read the book more than eleven years ago, and it is one that I can highly recommend. Just twenty two pages long, it is described on its cover as Dialect poetry and reminiscences of the West Riding and contains some sixteen poems, several prose pieces and a story - all of which relate to life in the mill towns of West Riding, a now defunct administrative region of West Yorkshire north and west of Leeds, later absorbed into that city and nearby Bradford). Of particular focus is the town of Yeadon - today the location of Leeds and Bradford Airport. The blurb asks, Its a different world - but is it a better one? Were they the bad old days or the good old days? Perhaps these questions need no further answer then the opening poem, in which the author's earliest employment at the mill machines on leaving school are depressingly recalled:
no future but to work int' mill,
fate hed decided what hed t' be.
Tears an' tantrums made noa mark,
on mi muther's frame o' mind,
mill wor th' natural place t' work,
mi laikin' days left behind.
Apart from the at times unnecessary commas it is poetry as natural as human speech. Though the dialect poetry may seem over done, if I close my eyes it might almost be my own grandmother - also a mill girl in the inter-war years and after - who is speaking. My own disgruntlement with dialect poetry is that it often seems an affectation, whose laboured clunkiness can prohibit rather than deepen comprehension - but Mabel Harrison's language makes her poetry as revealing as photographs. The age-old predicament of many working peoples is evidently expressed in the poem - on the one hand resenting the mundaneness of the job, on the other afraid of losing it:
Less hope, less work, mooar strife.
Less brass, short time, an' then
on t' dole. Such a waste of life.
Lasses tramped thro' t' snaw in tears,
beggin' jobs, feet frozen raw,
'til at last new industries
gave hope, no mooar th' dole t' draw.
I grant that some of that second stanza may seem over-written, or a lapse into the Dickensian Picaresque ... but the combination of its harsh imagery and authentic words enables a vivid visualization.
The portraits of the era, though, are not all steeped in gloom. In Nowt so Queer as Fowk, Mabel paints a humorous picture of a loveable local rogue:
Bugger Afloat lived in Ells Square.
An owd sailor, he wor a reight owd soak.
Various eccentrics are remembered before the poet observes:
Today some fowk might be quite as odd,
but each tries to be like t' other one,
they all lewk like peas in a pod.
With the passing of a further three decades, this complaint seems all the more appropriate.
Mabel Harrison is unafraid of sentimentalizing the past, or of expressing - as in the book's first poem - genuine sadness at injustice. Yet her general overview of the era she describes is one of happiness. The piece The Year of Mi' Life is about 1926, year of the General Strike. Too young to understand the complex political situation, she simply enjoyed having her parents both at home. It was a year I wouldn't have missed. She romanticizes silent films, playing Cowboys and Indians, dancing to scout bands. I shall always be glad my childhood was spent before the roads were crammed with motorcars, that I could ride on tradesman's carts, behind the big grey horses, and smell the new baked bread from every house.
The poetry is mainly written in rhyming couplets, but the occasional charge of parochialism is offset by such gems as Sunrise at Scarbrough - the poem which first took my attention when discovering the book in a library:
I will awaken when the wings of dawn,
swim across the sky, and keep watch
until the dark sea lightens
...I await in eager anticipation
longing for the one enchanting moment,
when in crimson glory gleams
the rising sun.
There is a spiritual feel to the worshipping of sunrise:
fusing sea, sand and sky together,
in an all consuming flame.
The metaphors are at times dramatic:
The rough sea rages,
challenging the armour of the cold cliff sides
At others laced with subtle melancholy:
Waves discarding driftwood wash the sands,
tossing Neptune's treasures.
I feel that, as strange as it may sound, the dialect poetry is best suited not to being heard out loud, but to being read from the page and mentally embraced. The risk of unintended comedy, of deadpan bathos or exaggeration, is averted when lines like the following are processed purely with an internal voice, which may aid the processing of the intertwined imagery and raw accentuation:
Ah breeath in deep as t' heather breezes blaw,
from th' high purple mooars araand.
Unseen ah gaze at t' morning's glow
of sunleet on t' bronze an scarlet ground.
Of all th' year ah think ah d' choose
these Autumn mornings, cobweb-kissed.
There are also reflections of urban life, particularly in Christmas Shopping in the 1920's, where childhood trips to Leeds are recollected:
Ah skipped wi' joy along Boar Lane,
an' Woodbine Liz stood by a wall...
Growing up in Leeds sixty years later, I can well remember talk of Woodbine Liz - a "gentlewoman of the road" found in the city, puffing on an endless supply of Woodbine cigarettes.
After passing through City Square, where the tramlines shone wi' frosty gleam and admiring the toyshops with their dolls, horses, trains and teddy bears, following a visit to Santa Claus and tea-and-cakes, the family take a walk through the Grand Arcade:
The Arcade clock soa high above
waited ready t' strike th' hour,
we saw th' magic figures move,
then stand motionless as before.
The magic figures - statues in mediaeval dress who take turns to bang a huge bronze bell, were still there when my mother would show me, as a child myself, and certainly on Christmas shopping trips, the very same mechanical enactments. As far as I know, they are there still.
Less reassuring is the fate of the market. Walking among the stalls, Mabel Harrison notes We smelt th' flowers an' fruit soa sweet / an' walked on sawdust for a carpet. Until recently, my mother kept a bric-a-brac and clothes stall, on which I l also often worked, on the same market. Nowadays, the description might more accurately read We smelt the cannabis and ciders o stale, / walked on needles for a carpet.
As to the debate between good days and bad, Harrison does not ignore the difficult issues of her day, either. Th' Little Black Boy is about encountering a child on a train to Manchester.
Little Black Boy, why soa sad?
Tha' art such a tiny lad.
No concrete reasons are given, but the writer is very much aware of how the child
Watches the white world whirl along
wi' eyes so raand in his solemn face.
Discerning solemnity and having the boy listening and watching the world, rather than just seeing or hearing, is demonstrative of empathy. After all, the poet's own poverty-stricken childhood could be said to have had many parallels with that of a black boy in Britain in the Twenties. An unrepentant optimist, however, and seeing in the young man's future a wealth of possibilities that may transform his present circumstances, she is eager to point out:
Tha' cud be doctor, lawyer, judge
an' t' world wud not then howd a grudge.
There is further social realism in Th' owd Dog Strike, an account of industrial action in 1909. That November, Yeadon dye workers took industrial action on account of what were felt to below average wages. It was seven years before the birth of Mabel Harrison, but clearly a story that still evoked strong feeling in her local area. As the strikers clashed with men who had remained at work ("blacklegs"), the house of one of the dye work's directors - Mr F Watson - was attacked, with all the windows broken and much of the furniture damaged. At Yeadon Town Hall, archive papers document the strike, and a local newspaper reported:
The riotous scenes in Yeadon on Saturday & Early on Sunday morning were the subject of much discussion in the locality yesterday; & there is still a great deal of feeling among sympathisers with the men who have come out on strike at the works of the Yeadon Dyeing Company. Mabel Harrison's re-telling is unbiased and objective, but certainly shot trough with a painful authenticity which imprints upon the reader's mind the grim injustices, and sad rivalries, of the time:
Three hundred fowk stood in t' snaw,
booin' the blacklegs goin' hoam,
...A violent battle raged fower days,
blood spilt on th' snaw so white.
Men, women an' bairs, all wor brayed
an' still cam; back again t' fight.
The unflinching account would be well worth reading by those people who - themselves often comfortably off University lecturers or journalists - to this day prefer to celebrate strikes and the scenes that oftentimes accompany them - the violence and division, families ruptured, children harmed. While making clear her sympathy with the strikers, the author later reflects that, ultimately, despite all the different efforts of workers to improve their lot, in her experience working people
Seldom won their struggle for decent living conditions.
Life was hard for Mabel Harrison herself, who was born just three years after the Yeadon Hunger March. In June 1913, 130 men marched from Yeadon to Blackpool to highlight the plight of workers during a lock-out of their clothing works. Demanding better pay, their Unions faced a stand-off with the management, who temporarily closed the works - a kind of strike in reverse. Desperate for money and food, the men passed through Bradford, Liverpool and other towns and cities, raising a banner which read Collecting for the Yeadon and Guiseley General Lock-out Fund. On behalf of 8,000 men women and children. Subscriptions Earnestly Solicited" and Mabel Harrison describes how:
The mills in Yeadon were locked out. A lot of people were on Poor Relief. Shopkeepers were good in allowing people to owe money for food and giving vegetables ... to a group of women making soup ... a soup kitchen was opened for the families of the men who were locked out.
She could do worse than recounting this to today's comfortably-off University lecturers who pour out platitudes blaming "economic deprivation" for today's social disorder, where groups and individuals - many of whom wear expensive clothing, go on foreign holidays, own mobile phones and splash out on consumer goods on credit cards - mug and maim the innocent or vandalize bus shelters smashed on booze.
As for the family of Mabel Harrison, they reached their lowest economic ebb in 1926, the year she so fondly recalls, and of which her father spent the majority unable to find work:
We had to cope with the shortage of food and coal as best we could. It made a big difference when the Miners struck. Houses had only a cold water tap. Few people had even a gas ring so it was imperative to get coal. We children were sent every day to the railway at Esholt, to pick up bits of coal that had dropped from the trains before the strike.
It is worth wondering just what the Yeadon Hunger Marchers, families subsisting on soups made from donated ingredients, or the children left to salvage fallen coal on railway lines, might have given for an ounce of the privileges enjoyed today by so many of the people regarded as deprived. Deprivation, though, may well have been said to have been the lot not only to Mabel Harrison, but also to many of her contemporaries, as they struggled through the Twenties amid hunger, strikes, mind-numbing labour, and social unrest. But despite this, When Buzzers Blew is far from being a desultory or dispiriting book. With delicate portraits of nature, evocative re-kindlings of daily life in the inter-war years, and a deft injection of warm wit, the collection is distinguished by its author's affectionate and perceptive style.
When Mabel Harrison died, on the 10th of January 2008, the Aireborough Local History Society paid tribute to her memory:
Aireborough's artistic community is in mourning for a poet from Yeadon who has died at the age of 91.
Mable Harrison was a prolific writer of both verse and dialect who wrote about the hard times as well as the lighter side of life.
She left at 14 and reluctantly went to work in the local mills, later she worked at Crompton Parkinsons, Carter and Parkers and Silver Cross.
During the war, after her marriage to Fred, she worked at the Silver Library in Otley, followed by 20 years of office work at Cartwright's and Dacre Son and Hartleys and Legal and General.
As well as writing she broadcast many times on Radio Leeds and made two local films for Yorkshire TV.
She contributed articles and poems for the Dalesman and several other magazines and local newspapers.
She wrote forwards, features and local history for books on Aireborough.
When Buzzers Blew is one of several collections Mabel Harrison produced, which can still be found in libraries, and which I recommend to anyone who is interested in local history, West Yorkshire dialect, and well written, acutely observed poetry.