Richard Hoyes on toilets and poets

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Meet Sack'em Simms, foreman from hell, the foundry equivalent of the teacher who doesn't smile until Christmas - and in Sack'em's case probably not even then.

I met Sack'em at Scunthorpe steelworks. As a student I spent my summer holidays there, shovelling soot out of the underground flues, demolishing the linings of open hearth furnaces and, on good days, driving the dumper.

The thing with Sack'em was, he could write. That gave him power. I can see him now with his indelible pencil and clipboard barking out orders, telling his men where to go. Later in the day, men my father's age would come up to us students and ask us to fill out their job record cards. Sometimes English was their second language, but more often they were just people who hadn't prospered at school. English was their only language and they couldn't read or write it.

For a minute we were Sack'em Simms, God Almighty. A mate of mine wrote on somebody's card the words to a current pop song, "It's my party (and I'll cry if I want to)". This was on the job card of a man who had spent the night shift hacking out the lining of a Bessemer furnace. My friend had been in France for a year, so he wrote the French version, "C'est ma fete et je fais ce qui me plait j'ai dessine ce soir Mona Lise." "Tonight I have drawn the Mona Lisa." And, in a way, he had. I cringe at that now.

These were the Sixties when Scunthorpe, my home town, was booming. People came from all over the world to find work. I wish I could have my time again with Sack'em Simms's cosmopolitan class. I'd appreciate my classmates' wisdom. Sack'em didn't.

"What you learning to be? A vicar?" one of them asked me. I've always looked a bit vicarish. I was reading a book. I denied any clerical claim.

"What yer reading then if it it's not the Bible? Karl Marx?" On the steelworks, students were thought to be either trendy trainee vicars or communists. One way or another students were revolting.

"I'm reading Milton," I told hm. "Paradise Lost."

"Milton," he said, "that's a steriliser."

It took me 20 years to work out what he meant by that. Not till I became a father did I realise that Milton is a sterilising fluid you use on teats and nappies.

The biggest man on the shop floor was Arthur, whom smaller men were always baiting.

"Started any good fights lately, Arthur?" "Last night this feller was hitting his missus in our tenfoot. I said, 'Stop that and he didn't. So I smacked him."

"Hurt him did you, Arthur?" "Well, he were down on floor."

"His missus'll be round to thank you then Arthur."

"She bloody won't. She'll be round to say, 'What did you hit my husband for?' " Such quietly spoken knowledge of the world, its abuses, its secrets, its tragic little dignities. For us students it was knowledge, but not as we knew it. It was on the steelworks that I learnt to associate the greatest English poet of the 20th century (discuss) with a toilet. "What poet spells toilet backwards?" I didn't know.

"T Eliot."

"T S Eliot," I corrected. "No. T Eliot, otherwise it would be toilest. Forget the Stearns." And my classmate was right. T Eliot spells toilet backwards. And once a very hot man in a vest has told you that, you realise something profound about culture: Thomas Stearns Eliot can be mentioned in the same breath as toilet. Years later, when he was working with students at Farnham college, the visiting poet, author and broadcaster Ian McMillan told us the world's longest and most literary palindrome. A palindrome reads the same backwards as forwards. This one started with Eliot and finished with toilet. Or started with toilet and finished with Eliot: T Eliot top bard notes putrid tang emanating is sad. I'd assign it a name. Gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet.

I'd heard the start of it before. And I'll never forget where: Redbourne ironworks, Scunthorpe.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. E-mail:

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