THE WALKING STICK PHILANTHROPIST

For Elise Oliver

 

A Facebook acquaintance once shared a story

about her maternal great-uncle, George,

who, for thirty nine years, drove a steam engine

– a Hunslet standard gauge made in Leeds –

pulling goods wagons of coal and clay

from the marshalling yards in Stoke-on-Trent

to the pot banks in Burslem, Tunstall, Longton,

Fenton, Hanley, and brought back finished pots.

 

His father had left labouring on a farm

in Rugeley to labour at a bottle kiln.

The family of nine lived in poverty.

George never married, and shared,

with his surviving sister’s family,

a red brick railwaymen’s terraced house

somewhere in Shelton behind Stoke station.

“It’s a stop and start sort of job,” he would say,

“waiting in sidings for the main line trains

to pass, and shunters to fettle the wagons”.

 

His favourite haul was to ‘Etruria’ –

“not the place in Italy!”, he would joke,

but Josiah Wedgewood’s estate outside

the Six Towns, to where he had moved both

his works and his family to escape

the sulphurous smog. By the siding

mountain ash trees grew on an embankment.

George would set the fireman/trainee driver

to brew the tea, lend him his Daily Mirror,

step down, and peg a likely sapling

to the ground with twine. In time he would harvest

the bespoke canes and give the primitive

but sturdy walking sticks to needy neighbours

in the narrow, cobbled streets of Shelton.

 

 ***

 

Travelling back from London by train

in a carriage full of masked strangers,

a wild, darkening autumn afternoon

flinging leaves at the windows, I fell asleep,

dreaming of two old bald men fighting

over a comb, of a couple of giants

clubbing each other to death in quicksand,

of billionaires rocketing into space

the better to see the forests burning.

 

I woke to an unfamiliar landscape,

and feared I was on the wrong journey.

We came to a deserted station.

The train slowed. I read the sign – ‘Etruria’,

and was transported briefly to a world

of china blue, and elegant white figures

in Attic poses – then realised

we had bypassed Stafford, its castle ruins,

and closed factories. I thought of one man’s

enterprise, and kindness.

 

 

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