When I was tiny and just starting to look around at the world, my grandmother lived in Rotherham, Yorkshire. She taught at the kindergarten down the road, while my grandfather was a boilermaker at a factory a short walk away. The main local industries were coal mining and steel: coal distant but steelworks at the bottom of Cavendish Road, which you always could smell. They lived in a very settled working-class community. The area was very stable when I was a child: socially coherent and the front door never locked before bedtime, in dramatic contrast with the social disintegration that would follow a generation later following the collapse of the area's sustaining heavy industries.
Grandma used to recite an endlessly cycling rhyme for me, which had been passed down to her orally. I never saw it written down anywhere.
To go to work
To that curious child of three, this was fascinating.
To go to work, granddad would get up for the morning shift and leave the house ten minutes before six, which in deep winter would be in total darkness. Jenkins’ Boiler Works was nine minutes’ walk away through the soot-stained red brick streets of industrial Victorian back-to-back houses, which looked like those in the Leeds picture above and thousands of others through the north of England. Grandma would light him his one cigarette of the day and kiss him on his way: goodbye, my love. They loved each other very much, in that undemonstrative, Northern English style which is often mistaken for absence of affection.
This was an easy lyric to write. I just had to put myself in grandma’s mind, saying goodbye to the love of her life on every cold, dark winter morning. I had the chorus (thank you Grandma), half of the verses and bridges, and a rudimentary tune. Sarah Jane Morris and I finished it off together and she delivered the suitably exuberant vocals. The song is not about drudgery. Like the endless rhyme, it's about persistence and making the most of what you are given.
I appropriated those traditional words. No apologies.
- MT March 2006, revised October 2006
photo: Bill Chapman (c1965)
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