Up a steep lane banked with a flint wall
are the remains of a workhouse. A heritage
lottery grant has preserved the section
for men in its pristine austerity.
In return for a wash, clothes boiled, a bowl
of gruel, a night’s sleep, the following day
from first light they would grind stones – working
a cast iron, giant-size egg slicer, like
a destructive loom. After midday,
and no food, they would tramp, like their Poor Law
forebears, to the next parish, the next workhouse.
My grandmother, despite the Welfare State,
her widow’s pension and her three daughters’
pensionable, public service ‘jobs for life’,
invoked the spectre of the workhouse.
And the spectre haunts us still. Poverty is,
at best, a venial sin purged through
working for nowt or as near as nowt –
or a mortal sin, punishable
by eternity in bed & breakfast
after bed & breakfast from town to town
with no table to eat at, nowhere to play…
All luxuries were forbidden, so,
at the bottom of the lane, the lads
would stow their smokes in gaps between the flints.
As they set off on their next tramp, I would
like to think they’d all light up and joke
how they had fooled the master yet again
– and curse a bit and laugh a lot. But, perhaps,
they had been brought too low.
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