Harry Gallagher first attended one of my writing groups in January 2013 and since then, I’ve seen his success grow exponentially. That, however, has little to do with me: the range of Harry’s poetry is astounding and he can write on pretty much any subject. Whether you’re looking for political rants or romantic poems, Harry’s your man. That said, the poems I have enjoyed the most have been inspired by Harry’s home town and the people he knew there.
Harry’s spending time with us on the blog today to chat about his home town.
My Home Town
By Harry Gallagher
There’s no easy way of putting this. I’m from Middlesbrough. There, I said it. Home of steel making since Victorian times, when Prime Minister Gladstone labelled the town “the infant Hercules”. When this writer left school in 1979 (the year of the first election of St Margaret Of Hades) there were, from memory, some 45,000 people directly employed by British Steel on Teesside. This is not to mention all the supporting industries, chemical giants ICI (remember them?) and the shipyards. Like it or not, this stuff is in our bones and in our lungs – check my asthma, baby!
Fast forward to 2016 and we now no longer make steel, the blast furnace having been sacrificed just last year in a disgraceful sop to the Chinese government, in return for their help building a nuclear power plant elsewhere. And all under the baleful gaze of the Minister for the laughable Northern Poorhouse project, unbelievably a local MP. The Middlesbrough FC chairman, Steve Gibson – a local council estate lad made good and a left leaning champion of the town to boot – furiously labelled him “an absolute clown” and who am I to argue? But first let me take you back, back, back…
Our heavy industrial roots – which is now referred to, apparently without irony, as ‘heritage’ – and unique cultural mix are what made our people who they are. Everyone’s ancestors in Middlesbrough came from somewhere else, having followed work to a smoke blackened, nigh on lawless Wild West. Both sides of my family came from Ireland.
I grew up in the 1970s and consider myself fortunate to have spent the 80s working alongside pretty much the last generation of men in this country who, in their own words, spent their lives “fighting iron”. These people lifted and bent heavy steel to their will, or had once dug ironstone from the earth, or processed massive amounts of deadly chemicals, or built and then sent ships to all corners of the world. Their lives were hard and so they had to be hard too, in order to survive. The men I knew smoked pin-thin woodbines, held between thumb and forefinger, lit end pointing into their palms. Their humour was often coarse – by God, they were funny – and cruel, but they were bound by a common purpose and by communities as close as the back to backs they often lived in. They were as tough as… well, ironstone, but they were also often surprisingly warm and kind.
These people inhabited a world now almost gone – and in many ways maybe we should be glad it is. Their wives seemed to mostly stay at home, raising the family; sometimes working part-time to supplement the income of the 7 days a week man. Their children could expect to follow a similar path. The sons of the Tyne and Wear rivers had shipyards, coal mines and heavy engineering. On the Tees, coal mining was exchanged for iron and steel or chemical works. They knew the river would provide, as it had done for the previous hundred years or more. They would marry a local girl and expect to bring up a family in a similar vein, perhaps hoping to provide their own family with a little better than they themselves had known.
So where did they all go, the children and grandchildren of these people? Well, the lucky or more adaptable ones followed the example of their forefathers and became migrants themselves. I challenge you to step onto an oil or gas platform anywhere in the North Sea or Middle East and just listen. Within minutes your ears will be assaulted by that gruff twang – a “Now then chor!” or perhaps “Yer jokin’ arn yer!” It’s how we roll – all around the globe. I have encountered my townsfolk in most countries in Europe, in Kazakhstan, in Qatar, in fact everywhere I have worked.
But what of the others, those without a recognised trade? Or those unable to work? Or the helpless or hopeless? You know – the people who helped build the country. To spell it out, the unemployed. Well, they found themselves at the top of our lovely government’s priority list, just above asylum seekers and rabid dogs; and thus became the chief target of Ian Duncan Smith’s austerity drive.
These people are the Have Nots. Many of their children are either on low paid, zero hour contracts or if they are lucky, work in call centres. Others are themselves on Benefit Street. They will never be able to afford what many of their parents’ generation aspired to – getting a step on the property ladder – instead paying rent to the Haves.
And then along came Nigel, with his tabloid-owning friends and his hatred and his simple answer to a complicated question. To cut a long and depressing story short, we took the bait. Not everyone did – I have friends and family in Teesside as horrified as I am – but enough people blamed the other people doing exactly what our own ancestors had done. And so here we are, on our way out of the EU. The one and only institution propping up an area which our own government has abandoned and we have just marched proudly away from it, right arms in the air. But, hey we got our country back.
At the time of writing, our future looks as bleak as the clouds that once hung over our town. But we must have hope. Teesside people are unique. Though rooted in history, we have always been a largely forward-looking bunch and we are nothing if not pragmatic. We have adapted to enormous change and are still evolving. Thatcher’s filthy brood continue to throw sharp objects at us, but resilience came hard-earned and we are a tough bunch. Here’s to the future, wherever it may lead…